|Upperton ends sabbatical early to return to bobsleigh track…
|CALGARY — The original game plan called for Helen Upperton to take a year off from the rigours of piloting a bobsled. A year to rest her aching bones. A year away from airplanes and icehouses. A year to reflect and ponder retirement. The break lasted all of four months.
“I didn’t do anything,” the 32-year-old Olympic silver medallist says of her shortened sabbatical. “I was playing soccer and doing kick-boxing classes with my friends and stuff. “I think the break helped a little.”
Canada’s most decorated female pilot is back competing this week on her home track in Calgary at the latest stop on the FIBT Bobsleigh America’s Cup circuit. “To retire from a sport you’ve been successful in for a long time — you really need to leave on your own terms when you’re sure,” says Upperton, a graduate of Dr. E.P. Scarlett High School. “I’ve kind of thrown the idea back and forth.?“But I wasn’t really committed to walking away just yet, because there’s still unfinished business in my career.”
With a resume that includes 18 World Cup medals (six gold) and Olympic silver, Upperton has little remaining on the to-do list. However, through five trips to the world championships, she has not one podium visit to her name.
Two fourth places, one fifth and one sixth don’t quite cut it. “For some reason, something always seems to go wrong there for me,” she says. “The last time we had world’s in Lake Placid, (New York), I raced with two detached ribs and 17 freezing injections. We finished fourth by nine-hundredths of a second. “What can you do?
Battered down by a chronic nerve problem in her lower back, Upperton wanted the year away from the sport to decide if her body can weather the rigours of two more seasons of competition leading into the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
Then Bobsleigh Canada hired a new engineering firm to design state-of-the-art sleds for the Olympics. Upperton was tagged as a test pilot. In the meantime, the doctors decided to give Upperton cortisone shots to help alleviate the chronic pain in her hamstrings.
On top of that, Upperton’s boss at her summer job — in the marketing department for the Dilawri Automotive group — offered to help sponsor her this season. The sabbatical was over.
“I think this year will help me get some closure in either direction,” she says. “Either I’ll know I want to continue and that there are solutions to some of these injuries. Or I’ll know I’ve had a great career, and it’s time to transition into something different.
“If I’m going to keep going to Sochi, I don’t just want to go and race. I want to go and have a chance to win. If I keep losing my speed and the ability to train, I’m not going to be able to do that in four years. At some point, it becomes too painful to wake up every day and push your body to do something it doesn’t want you to do any more.”
The revised game plan calls for Upperton to compete on the America’s Cup circuit for the first part of the year and compete on the World Cup circuit after Christmas in Whistler, B.C., and Calgary with her Olympic brakeman Shelley-Ann Brown.
From there, they hope to compete at the world championships in Lake Placid — although the challenge will be immense. Rankings are determined first and foremost by World Cup points, so the dynamic duo will be near the bottom of the heap.
That means they’ll race after all the favourites have already chewed up the track. “I’m handicapping myself, as usual,” she says. “Maybe subconsciously I like a challenge.”