Bobsled pilot Helen Upperton has elevated the pre-competition ritual to the standard of high voodoo. Her brakeman, Shelley-Ann Brown, twists her hair into elaborate “speed braids” that Upperton swears make her faster. She paints her fingernails black. And, as she negotiates the vertiginous corners of the bobsled run at high speed, she chews gum—for years it was 7-Eleven blue raspberry Slurpee flavour—like some snowbound Chuck Yeager. Don’t let the hocus-pocus fool you; it all enhances wicked focus. “I could close my eyes right now and picture any track in the world, every corner,” she says. “You have to—it comes at you so fast it has to be automatic.”
She was born to British parents on a Halloween 30 years ago in Kuwait, where her father, Kerry, worked in the oil industry. For a while it looked as though she might have been born under a bad sign: as a kid in Calgary, the middle girl of three, she spent hours in hospital thanks to a penchant for daredevil antics—catapulting off banisters, sticking metal doodads into electric sockets. Her mother, Hilary, has a vivid memory of Helen hanging in her diaper from a tree she’d climbed. “The girl was an ongoing, walking emergency-room case,” says a friend. Always athletic, she played soccer (her dad was her coach) and competed in luge as a tween: “I was like, ‘Sure, it’s like super-fast tobogganing!!!’ ” says Upperton, an avid gesticulator who speaks at bobsleigh speeds—but stopped when, true to form, she crashed, nearly knocking out all her teeth. “We’d spent all these thousands on orthodontics,” says Hilary.
Ironically, it was a broken foot she endured as a track and field athlete at the University of Texas at Austin—the injury ended her triple jumping career—that led her to bobsleigh. Upperton had just landed a job as a personal trainer in Toronto when she heard from recruiters with Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton, the sport’s governing body. Women’s bobsleigh was just getting started—it made its rickety debut at the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City—and the team needed track-and-fielders like Upperton with the strength to push hard and fast. “I wasn’t even in shape,” she says. “They were like, ‘You’re tall, you’re big, you’re pretty strong, pretty fast, we think you’d be really good.’ I was like—‘No.’ ” That’s when Kerry, who knew she missed competition, suggested she give training a try. It didn’t take long for Upperton to fall in love with super-fast tobogganing all over again. “Send my stuff,” she soon told her sister in Toronto. “I’m not coming home.”
The recruiters were on to something. Upperton had barely learned to drive before she came eighth at the 2004 world championships in Konigssee, Germany—the best result in Canadian women’s bobsleigh history. “It was the first time I thought, ‘I’m representing my country, this is amazing!’ ” she says. “I was like, ‘I can do better than this!’ ” The following season, alongside brakeman Heather Moyse, Upperton won her first World Cup medal, capturing third in Calgary. The pair went on to record Canada’s first World Cup gold, in St. Moritz, Switzerland. By the time the 2006 Olympic Winter Games in Turin rolled around, Upperton was feeling the pressure. The jitters relegated her to fourth place. No matter. She rewarded herself with a Yamaha V-Star 1100, capable of speeds approaching 145 km/h—much to her coaches’ chagrin. “I don’t really announce it,” she says of the hobby. “I ride it as much as I can.”
As you might expect of an avowed biker, Upperton can be something of a loner. “Helen’s like an indie film festival,” says J.D. Miller, a founder of the private, not-for-profit B2Ten program that supports Upperton and other elite athletes. “She’s a unique individual, a complicated individual, who walks her own road.” If that go-it-alone approach once made track and field an easy fit, bobsleigh is a different proposition. “Team sports have a lot of politics,” she says. “The thing I like about track and field is, it’s you and the track. Like, it’s just you. And everything that happens—it’s all on you.” As it turns out, bobsleigh is an odd hybrid of team and individual sport—the leadership of a pilot clutching the steering ropes joined to a congress of brakemen. A two-woman operation in a sport that gets only one shot at Olympic glory—unlike men, women don’t also compete in a four-man event—a pilot’s relationship with her teammates can be fraught. “Every team usually has two brakemen, but to race you only need one,” says Upperton. “They’ve trained for four years, put in the same sacrifices, and at the biggest event, one has to sit out and watch. It’s pretty heartbreaking.”
That selection is based mainly on horsepower—how quickly you can push that 340-kg sled 50 m—but team dynamics also come into play. Whatever the criteria, the decision hurts somebody. “Occasionally there are some good tears shed when someone who’s a friend and a teammate doesn’t make it,” says Hilary. Upperton has competed with a handful of partners, beginning with Kaillie Humphries, later with Moyse and Jenny Ciochetti. Humphries, who has since become a pilot too, learned she wouldn’t compete in Turin just prior to the games. “The relationship never made it through that season,” Upperton told Maclean’s. The pair briefly shared a podium in December after Humphries took gold, Upperton silver at the women’s bobsleigh World Cup in Altenberg, Germany. “Yes, Helen and I have a history. And yes, we are competitors,” Humphries told a reporter. “But we’re on the same team and we do respect each other.”
Brown, the brakeman who braids Upperton’s hair for speed, now appears poised to accompany her to Vancouver; Humphries, meanwhile, will head to the games backed by Moyse. Even as early as last summer, Ciochetti, the daughter of an Edmonton firefighter who had to be convinced to join the team, seemed to be preparing for the hit. “I love my team,” she said. “They’re like my family. You’re around these same people for six months straight, living 24-7 together, training, competing, talking about bobsleigh. It’s good for me to go home and be around other people who couldn’t care less about bobsleigh and love me regardless—just for who I am.”
Neither did Upperton, who dreams of one day becoming a professional helicopter pilot, choose to become a bobsledder. “I love bobsleigh now, but I never would have picked it,” she says. “No one ever grows up wanting to be a bobsledder.” She stops. “Could you imagine if we changed that? At the Vancouver Olympics? If we make this sport well-enough recognized that little girls out there grow up wanting to be bobsledders? That would be pretty amazing.”