Canadian bobsledder Cynthia Appiah’s pilot project is pushing back against bias and taking her to new heights. It’s no trivial pursuit
By Joe Callaghan Special to the Star
Fri., Feb. 5,2021
Cynthia Appiah’s lifelong devotion is not to bobsleigh … but “Jeopardy!”
Her addiction to the game show and to trivia — all of it — is such that Bobsleigh Canada teammates turn not to Google searches on their phones but to Appiah for answers to the random questions that pop up in daily conversation. A coach calls her Cynthipedia.
The devotion hasn’t quite led to Appiah answering questions in Jeopardese — in the form of another question. But if she did, her response to another knock on the door of her hotel room in Altenberg, Germany on Tuesday night could have been: “What is the athletic definition of a backhanded compliment?”
The knock came from doping control. For the third time in the space of two weeks.
“It’s like, congratulations on your great weekend! We are here again to test you just to make sure,” Appiah laughs. “All the comments I’ve been getting are like, ‘Well, that’s what you get when you set push-start records.’”
It had been a great weekend for Appiah, arguably her best since she transitioned from brakewoman to pilot just three years ago. Blistering starts had helped Appiah and Dawn Richardson Wilson to fourth place at the World Cup meet in Innsbruck, Austria, just eight hundredths of a second from gold. In a sport where so much comes down to the timing, the 30-year-old from Toronto sure picked her moment to make a statement.
The IBSF world championships kick off in Altenberg this weekend. This week also marked the one-year countdown to the Beijing Olympics, where she hopes to chase gold in both the two-woman bobsleigh and monobob, a new solo event for women.
Appiah is a portrait of human contradictions. She describes herself as risk-averse and yet truly loves this life of “going down an icy waterslide in a metal tube, with just a motorcycle helmet protecting (me).” She says she’s stubborn yet has adapted to change and challenge throughout her career, throughout her life. Ravenous for “useless trivial information” yet a considered, deep thinker on the deepest topics of psychology and science and society. Wonderfully self-deprecating yet stoically focused on the biggest goals.
Most of all Appiah is an athlete in a hurry. In a hurry to fulfil Olympic dreams and banish Olympic nightmares. In a hurry to prove to a very white sport that all the prejudiced preconceptions about Black drivers could not be more wrong. And in a hurry to bring positivity and light to a Canadian Bobsleigh program that was dragged to dark places since the last Games, when the defection of its shining star, Kaillie Humphries, brought harassment investigations, lawsuits and utter acrimony.
All of this hurry. And yet there’s still time for “Jeopardy!”
“I just love spitting useless knowledge to people, whether they want to hear it or not. And I feel like (going on) ‘Jeopardy!’ would be the peak of useless information. I can’t honestly figure the moment when we all started watching ‘Jeopardy!’ but it’s just a massive family thing,” Appiah, still mourning the passing of iconic host Alex Trebek, tells the Star.
She lives with younger sisters Martha and Evelyn now but when they all return home to Etobicoke, the entire family gets right back into their in-house game show within a game show. Pencils and paper at the ready for 7:30 p.m., they answer along with the “Jeopardy!” questions. “It’s so fun, but it’s tense and it can be cutthroat,” laughs Appiah, for whom nerdism is a way of life. “I’m just always looking up something. I tend to get on to Wikipedia and go down the rabbit hole a lot. I’ll have like 20 tabs open of just … useless stuff. I’m like, ‘Why am I reading this?’”
Wikipedia and, to be fair, “Jeopardy!” do a good job of condensing lives and careers and highlighting the milestones. What would an abridged “early life” section look like for Appiah?
The daughter of Ghanaian immigrants, winter sports were almost non-existent in her childhood, ice skating with her older brother the extent of it. “Growing up in a low-income family, you know, the ski trip, snowboarding, even hockey wasn’t really available to us just because of cost,” she says. It’s why representation and accessibility to winter sports matters so deeply to her now.
It wasn’t until she enrolled at York University — where she was, unsurprisingly, studying history (all that trivia) — that Appiah’s interest in the bobsleigh was piqued. Athletically gifted and dedicated, she was excelling in both the hammer throw and shot put. When she turned her attentions to the back of a sled, she adapted and gradually excelled again.
As the 2018 Olympics cycle warmed up, Appiah looked on her way to becoming a highly sought-after brakewoman. She and Humphries had claimed World Cup medals in Whistler and Lake Placid. Her dream of appearing at a Games looked sure to be realized in Pyeongchang.
But two weeks before the 2018 Games opened, the walls suddenly closed in. She was demoted to an alternate with former sprinter Phylicia George partnering Humphries and two-time gold medallist Heather Moyse returning from retirement too.
In a seeringly honest essay for the Canadian Olympic Committee website last month, Appiah described the crushing experience: staying outside the athletes village at a hotel, but entering to join her teammates for training each day. The Olympic dream briefly under her feet by day and yet pulled from under her. She reached for words like “estranged,” “a failure” and “a shadow.”
“When I wrote that part down, I just thought for the past three years I’ve had a hard time describing what my experience was like in Korea,” she says. “And then I was just like, I felt like a shadow. Oh my God. That’s exactly how I felt. I was a shadow.”
Appiah returned from Korea a shell of her former self. She insisted that was it. She was walking away — from it all. The intervention of teammates who felt her pain convinced her to think again. An end-of-season debrief with one of her coaches, Lyndon Rush, helped too.
“The big thing she was really mad about was the culture. And she wanted it to be different,” Rush, a bronze medallist in four-man at the 2010 Olympics, told the Star of that meeting. “And I said, ‘Well, you want it to be different then you should become a pilot. And you should change it because pilots … control the culture. And if you don’t want the girls in the future, or people in the future, not to feel like you do, why don’t you become a pilot?’”
Appiah was still far from certain, but went to Lake Placid to attend pilot school while she weighed it all up. Learning, whether useless trivia or how to take breakneck turns, has been therapeutic throughout her journey. She hopped between the front and the back of the sled for a time, but began to really find her groove as a pilot in the early part of the 2019 season.
It just so happened to be a time when the Canadian sledding community was being dragged off the tracks.
Humphries, the face of the sport here, wanted to switch to the United States. It wasn’t going to be so simple. Things got messy in a hurry.
As harassment claims were investigated, demands made and court cases approached, Appiah focused on her new challenge.
“It became a really good distraction,” she says. “I really needed to be focusing on honing my skills as a pilot and I can’t really be focusing on something that, realistically, I had nothing to do with.”
Appiah had worked as closely with Humphries as anyone in the program, yet they were rarely close. And the chaos didn’t change that.
“The last time I talked to her was in the midst of the media attention with the court case. I congratulated her on her wedding and getting married to her husband and didn’t really get a response,” Appiah says. “I feel like once she left the team, you know, my role in her world, I guess, kind of ceased at that point.”
Humphries, of course, got her wish. And as Appiah blazes her own trail as an ever-improving pilot, she does so against her former partner. It was Humphries and Lolo Jones who took gold for the U.S. in Austria last week. At the world championships, which started early Friday, Humphries is going for a record fourth crown.
Bobsleigh tracks are, naturally, tight confines. Encounters are inevitable and, Appiah admits, awkward.
“You run into each other a lot, especially when everyone seems to circle and use the same grocery store to go for snacks,” she laughs. “You’re like, ‘Oh, OK, hello.’ I feel like I’m awkward in nature and may perceive it as more awkward than it actually is. I see her. I, you know, give my little head nod and move on.”
Humphries’s switch left a hole in the program. But Appiah argues that it also let the spotlight spread out a bit more.
“We’re working towards being that team that we’ve always wanted to be and not just be a singular person,” she says, pointing to the successes of Christine de Bruin, Justin Kripps, Melissa Lotholz and more. “At our peak, we have three men’s sleds and three women’s sleds. A lot of those teams kind of got pushed to the wayside because of one particular person.”
Becoming a pilot hasn’t just given Appiah the opportunity to alter the culture in Bobsleigh Canada but also to join a cultural challenge in the wider sport. While bobsleigh is one of the more diverse winter sports, that’s a low bar. And Black athletes are predominantly in the back of the sled, rather than at the helm.
When British Bobsleigh head coach Lee Johnson was caught up in a furor in 2017 over a comment that “Black drivers do not make good bobsleigh drivers,” it could be seen as a white power broker in the sport saying the quiet part out loud, rather than the extreme view of an outlier.
The success of leading Black pilots — Olympic champion Mariama Jamanka from Germany and U.S. star Elana Meyers Taylor to the fore — is changing that. Appiah is determined to do the same for the sport in Canada. The sight of her and Edmonton’s Richardson Wilson, also of Ghanaian descent, climbing out of a contending sled in Austria last week was a damn good start.
“It’s such a huge driving force. I mean, I just think back to, you know, growing up in Toronto, you don’t really see yourself on TV,” she says. “There’s preconceived notions as to what Black people can do. ‘Oh, Black people don’t do winter sports.’ There’s so many echoes (of) it in that.
“If you look at society, change doesn’t happen unless people are confronted by it. Unless people are forced to change, change won’t happen. I think myself and the other Black athletes that we have in the sport now are kind of like helping to slowly but surely change the tide.”
Altenberg this weekend is the latest stop in Appiah’s quest for Beijing, her quest to change many tides. When you’re in a hurry, questions come fast. She’ll need to have answers. But then she usually does. The final one may be anything but trivial.
Joe Callaghan is a Toronto-based sports and feature writer and a freelance contributor for the Star.