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In the first heat of the women's bobsleigh competition on Tuesday night, the Canada 1 sled crewed by Kaillie Humphries and Heather Moyse practically exploded out of the starting gate. They were the first to slide and they set a course record.
So the audience could be excused for thinking this fire-breathing Canadian duo, who won bobsleigh gold in Vancouver in 2010, could easily do it again.
Not so fast. The Canadians course record lasted about five minutes. The second sled, USA-1 piloted by Elana Meyers of the United States, shaved 0.13 of a second off Humphries' time. After the second heat, the Americans were a total of 0.23 seconds ahead, with two heats to go on Wednesday night (each team's the final time is the sum of the four heats). The Americans also set a start record in the second heat.
Humphries and Moyse are still in good position, but there is no doubt they face the fight of their sporting lives at the Sochi Games. They and the Americans have been neck and neck all season, and the U.S. lead will not be overcome easily. The Canadians will need great starts and Humphries will have to drive perfect lines to win back-to-back Olympic golds, a feat never accomplished among women sled drivers.
Humphries and Moyse insisted yesterday they did not know the time deficit between their sled and the American's. "We don't really look at times, so I don't even know how big the gap is," Humphries said. "And we don't want to know."
Maybe it's bad luck to know. Maybe knowing just adds to the pressure. "For us to go out and perform the very best that we can, we have to have fun, we have to be happy," Humphries said. "Knowing where other [competitors] are just complicates that."
Humphries feels she is a better pilot than she was in Vancouver four years ago. Since then, she has had a string of compelling victories: In 2012, she and brakeman Jenny Ciochetti became the first Canadian female bobsledders to win a world championship; in the 2012-13 season, Humphries won five World Cup races with rookie brakeman Chelsea Valois of Saskatchewan.
Humphries credits those successes with becoming a more consistent pilot. The trouble is, Meyers, her formidable rival and a bronze medalist in Vancouver (as brakeman), is also becoming more consistent, and the start times of her USA-1 sled were awe-inspiring on Tuesday night.
Looks like Meyers' choice for brakeman, Lauryn Williams, is paying off. Williams is a track star who won gold at the 2012 London Olympics in the 4x100-metre relay. She has been a bobsledder only since July. If she and Meyers deprive the Canadians of gold, Williams would become the first women, and second athlete, to win gold in both the Summer and Winter Games.
Meyers was happy to be in the lead halfway through the event. "It feels pretty good, but we've got a lot of work to do," she said. "The others are great drivers and it's not over. It's a great battle."
By "others," she means Humphries and Moyse. Olympic audiences love battles. This one will be as good as it gets.