CARLSBAD, Calif. – Kaillie Humphries, the world’s most successful female bobsled driver, lives an American life with her American husband in an American townhouse on an American cul-de-sac about a mile from the first American Legoland. A Team USA flag flutters beside her front door.
She is the reigning world champion in the monobob and the two-woman bobsled, and she would be among the favorites to win two gold medals at this winter’s Beijing Olympics. She could be the next big American Olympic star . . . except she’s not a U.S. citizen.
Humphries, 36, is from Canada, which she represented as she won two gold medals and a bronze in three Olympics before leaving in 2019, a year after filing a complaint alleging verbal and mental harassment by Canada’s bobsled coach. And while she since has been allowed to compete for the United States at most international events, the International Olympic Committee requires athletes to be citizens of the countries they represent.
Less than four months before the Winter Games, she is essentially a woman without a country, divorced from a Canadian team with which she says she felt unsafe but unable to get a U.S. passport in part because of laws that require a three-year wait for citizenship by marriage. Because she has been married for just two years, she has been told to expect a passport sometime in 2023.
That leaves Humphries “living in limbo,” unsure if she will be competing for gold in Beijing or staying at home in this beach town north of San Diego.
She said she has been offered instant citizenship from other countries, including China. But she doesn’t want to represent China or anywhere else.
“The country where I live, where I am married to, where I will get citizenship, I can’t compete for because [citizenship] won’t come in time,” she says.
She sighs. She needs to be a citizen by early January to have a shot at Beijing.
“I’m between a rock and a hard place,” she says.
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Tattoos cover Humphries’s arms, back and much of her legs. One side of her head is shaved close while the rest of her blond hair flows dramatically past her shoulders. People double-take when she walks into a restaurant for lunch. She looks like an athlete. She is not easy to intimidate.
As a teenager in Calgary, she was a competitive ski racer before leg injuries forced her to give up the sport and eventually turn to bobsled, where she started as a brakeman before switching to driving in 2007. By 2010, she was one of the best drivers in the world, winning gold in the two-woman bobsled at that year’s Olympics and then again in 2014.
Using her platform as a top bobsledder, Humphries began pushing to have mixed-gender four-person bobsleds added to the Olympics.
“She’s focused and knows what she wants to accomplish,” says Aron McGuire, the CEO of USA Bobsled/Skeleton and a former U.S. bobsledder.
Yet even with her success, Humphries has been insecure about her huge, muscle-filled legs, built from years of training. Sometimes she hears people commenting on them when she walks down the street. “Jeans shopping is the worst for me,” she says.
She says her tattoos provide armor against that insecurity, each one making her “feel more complete as a person” and giving her power over the worry that her body, made for sports, isn’t perfect. Her most recent is the word “strength.” It’s etched across her hamstring on the back of one leg.
“I feel happier with myself in the way that I look the more [tattoos] I get,” she says. “I feel more self-acceptance with each tattoo, and they help me overcome certain stuff.”
Sitting on her living-room couch, Humphries looks down at her legs.
“I’ve always been very strong for a female, and that isn’t always looked upon positively,” she continues. “Having big muscles can be very masculine, and I can go into a gym, I can hold my own, especially compared to most guys and most other women, and it’s not seen as the most feminine or girly.
“It’s very important for women to realize there are multiple different types and that beauty exists in those. We’re all different. We’re all made to be different. We achieve different things, different goals, beliefs, skin color, eye color, hair color, what we like and what we want to portray and how, you know, the body we were given – it can be utilized for good, but we should accept it.”
For much of her adult life, Humphries has been trying to understand what it means to fit a certain expectation of a female athlete. She’s fiercely competitive, and she knows that often puts people off. She says she can’t help her fiery glares and purposeful struts around the weight room. When she was a young ski racer, teammates and competitors avoided hanging out with her. She remembers riding the ski lifts alone – often. She also wasn’t close with many of the other Canadian bobsledders.
“Unapologetic” is the word she uses to describe her approach. As a woman in a sport dominated by men, she has come to learn that being “unapologetic” is “a big red flag.”
Before the 2010 Winter Olympics, Humphries was part of an anti-bullying campaign in which athletes picked words that had been used against them. Hers was “bitch.” For a time, she hated being called that, yet as she has gotten older, she has come to see the power it gives her against competitors.
She thought she was strong; she thought she could recognize bullying.
No way it could happen to her.
Then, she says, it did.
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Bobsledding is a small world, so when Bobsleigh Canada hired Todd Hays as coach in the lead-up to the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, Humphries had heard some things from sledders in the United States, where Hays had been the women’s coach from 2011 to 2014. In a recent interview, one U.S. female bobsledder who competed for Hays described him as “charming” but also an “obsessively controlling” coach who often blew up at sledders and used his 6-foot-3 frame and his “intensity” as intimidation. The sledder spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution.
Still, Humphies said, she was determined to give the coach a chance.
“I like to believe in the good in people,” she says.
That changed about a week after Hays started, when Humphries says he yelled at her in a “very public scenario,” bringing her to tears. Soon there were more incidents of what she calls “displays of being yelled and screamed at, intimidated, being lorded over and me feeling like I didn’t know who I was and being told how to think, how to operate.”
The incidents left her “feeling less than human, let alone an athlete.”
Hays has denied the allegations to investigators.
Distraught, Humphries went to Bobsleigh Canada leaders a few weeks before the Olympics and asked to be sent home. The leaders, she says, worked out a deal in which Hays would not coach her during the Games, a period she describes as “the best part” of that year. A month after the Olympics, Humphries repeated her concerns about Hays to Bobsleigh Canada President Sarah Storey, who she said told her Hays would remain in his position.
Humphries went home to Carlsbad. Shortly thereafter, she experienced strange headaches and rashes that covered her body. She locked herself in her home, dreading the thought of going back to a coach she feared.
“The thought of having to go through not just another year like that but for a four-year stint, my body and my brain could not comprehend it and it started to freak out,” she says.
That July, in a 12-page complaint to Bobsleigh Canada, she alleged verbal and mental abuse by Hays as well as retaliation for reporting her concerns to officials; in the complaint, she described several incidents in which she says Hays berated her. The complaint called for the firings of Hays as well as of Storey and high-performance director Chris Le Bihan for retaining him despite prior complaints.
Bobsleigh Canada hired an independent firm to investigate Humphries’s claims, and for the next year, Humphries did not compete for Canada. Hays, Storey and Le Bihan denied her allegations to the investigator, and the report, completed in September 2019, found no evidence to support Humphries’s charges.
By then, the relationship between Humphries and Bobsleigh Canada was broken, and she approached U.S. bobsled officials, who told her she was welcome to join as long as she went through the same qualification process as any other new U.S. bobsledder: buying her own sled and earning her way onto the team. She quickly agreed.
She hired Jeffrey Rath, a Calgary attorney, and sued Bobsleigh Canada in September 2019, asking for her release. The organization let her go later that month, days after she married Travis Armbruster, a former U.S. bobsledder. She also appealed the findings of the Bobsleigh Canada report to an arbitrator who, in a ruling this past July, threw out the bulk of the original report, saying the investigator did not thoroughly examine her claims before dismissing them.
Bobsleigh Canada is in the process of commissioning another investigation. Citing that fact, it did not make Hays, Storey or Le Bihan available for comment but did send a statement that said the organization “respects the decision” of the arbitrator to “request a reinvestigation of certain complaints” and that “his decision confirmed that there was no retaliation” by Bobsleigh Canada. The statement added that the organization “denies any breach of policy on its part.”
Last year, Hays sued Humphries for defamation, demanding $250,000, claiming that by filing her complaint and then repeating her charges in the media she damaged his reputation and caused him to “lose out on the opportunity to receive a substantially higher salary” from Bobsleigh Canada.
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In her living room, Humphries pulls her Olympic medals from a cloth sack; the clunky, misshapen gold from Vancouver, the gold with the small built-in window from Sochi and the simpler bronze from PyeongChang. She holds them in her palm, each with a story so special she can’t pick a favorite.
Even the bronze is precious, she says, because after everything that happened before those Olympics, she feels elated to have won any medal at all.
She lays the medals on an ottoman and looks blankly across the room. In Colorado Springs, McGuire and U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee officials have been fighting to find a way to get her a passport. McGuire said he has begged U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services for a solution – even a two-month provisional passport for January and February – and pleaded with the IOC to make an exception.
The IOC, wary of opening a door that might be impossible to close, has been unwilling to grant exceptions to Rule 41 of the Olympic Charter, which says all athletes must be a “national” of the country they represent. In a statement, the IOC acknowledged it “is aware of the case which is being discussed with the [International Bobsleigh & Skeleton Federation] and the USOPC” and then referred to Rule 41.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said “privacy implications” keep it from commenting directly on her case.
The solution does not seem easy.
Humphries puts the medals back in the bag and heads with Armbruster to a beach a few blocks away.
“For the last year, every spare minute has been a conversation about something,” Armbruster says, “whether it’s about citizenship, the team, the arbitration, finishing up the arbitration, finishing up the other investigation and what did the arbitrator say? [Or the] citizenship test.”
He stops, and they fall silent. The citizenship test – they’ve been preparing for it every night lately, memorizing all 100 questions from which 10 will be randomly selected for the actual quiz, a final step toward becoming a citizen.
Suddenly they start firing questions to each other: “Who was the president during World War I?” “Name three of the original 13 colonies.”
On the beach, the sun is setting, dousing the sky in a rosy hue. The color is stunning. Gazing at it, Armbruster says he is optimistic his wife will go to the Olympics.
“You have to be,” he says. “Otherwise, what’s the point?
“Now maybe it’s wishful thinking,” he adds. “There are pathways there. If there weren’t pathways there, I’d be less hopeful. All we need is one yes.”