TORONTO - When Kaillie Humphries announced she would compete against men this past season, some of those men threatened to quit if she beat them. Canada's women's bobsled star laughed it off at the time, and then got down to the business of making them eat their words.
But breaking down gender barriers hasn't been easy for the two-time Olympic gold medallist.
Humphries became the first woman to compete in four-man bobsled at the world championships and on the World Cup circuit this past season. In Toronto this week to help promote a new women's sport initiative, the 29-year-old from Calgary reflected on what was a tougher season than expected.
"I definitely learned this year that there's a lot of proving I have to do. . . there are a lot of stereotypes. There was a lot of mental challenges I wasn't fully aware of," Humphries said. "I've been in a pretty male-dominated sport for a while and I thought I had a pretty good handle on what that was going to mean. But definitely competing with guys, in a guy's event is different. The starthouse is different, how they approach races is different, the intensity is different, how they think and function and act around each other. . . That's an area I'll have to adapt to if I want to be successful."
Humphries captured her second consecutive women's two-man title at the Sochi Olympics. Then, after successfully lobbying bobsled's world governing body to be included, Humphries and American rival Elana Meyers Taylor made history by racing against the men.
Humphries said her reception was largely positive — and sometimes humorous.
"Four-man day, everybody loves it, you're in the start house," she said. "The guys just whip off their shirts and they put their little speed suits on, so I do the same. And the amount of comments after. . .they're like 'You can't do that!' I'm like 'What do you mean?' And they're like 'You have your little pink underwear on, and it distracts us.'
"I'm like, 'See? Really I'm just smart.'"
American Steven Holcomb, the 2010 Olympic four-man champion, spoke positively about Humphries in an interview.
"He said 'At the end of the day if Kaillie can get her start up, I look forward to actually being able to compete against her because she's a competitor,'" Humphries said. "It had nothing to do with my gender. To have him say that, and to know he knows my ability as a pilot, and where I can go with this was a huge, huge compliment."
On the heels of her historic season, Humphries was an appropriate ambassador for Fuelling Women Champions, an initiative launched this week by Dairy Farmers of Canada to help promote and sponsor Canadian female athletes and teams.
She shoulders her position as a role model gladly, and talked about meeting a teenager at a recent Calgary Roughnecks game.
"You could tell she was super shy, and her dad was with her, and her dad was kind of pushing her. She told me I spoke to her soccer club right after the Vancouver Olympics," Humphries said. "She was completely shaking, super nervous, and she just wanted a picture. Just something as simple as that, it's very heartfelt, and you could tell that something that I'd said to her back then really stuck.
"Any time you get to hear from a fellow athlete, but especially a young girl, that what I do helps them, or gives them the confidence to achieve what they do is fantastic."
Humphries' fight to compete in the four-man, she said, isn't about women versus men. She wants women to have their own four-man event.
"And in the meantime I'm going to do everything that I can to be successful, mostly just to prove everybody wrong that did say girls can't do it," she said. "And to prove to the guys that said, 'Well, I'll quit.' I want to be the one that says, 'Now what are you going to do?' when it actually happens.
"I don't think they'll actually quit, but I definitely will do everything I can to make it happen. I want to prove to guys and girls alike that skill is skill, a competitor is a competitor."