Alumnus chasing history in Pyeongchang

Special to Western News

Editor’s Note (Feb. 19): Alex Kopacz, BESc’13 (Mechanical Engineering), and Justin Kripps captured gold late Monday for Canada’s third-ever Olympic medal in men’s two-man bobsleigh. The pair actually tied with Germany’s Francesco Friedrich and Thorsten Margis for first place after all four runs were completed, both sleds finishing with a total time of 3:16.86. Click here to read the story on their win.

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In five years, Alex Kopacz went from being a 23-year old Western undergrad who had never seen a bobsleigh, to a Team Canada Olympian waiting his turn on the international stage in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

“The night we found out, I immediately texted my parents to let them know,” the London native said. “My heart was racing, but I also had a great sense of relief. I didn’t stop feeling that sense of euphoria, co-mingled with adrenaline, until I finally went to bed that night.”

Kopacz, BESc’13 (Mechanical Engineering), started as a varsity-level shot-putter during his time at Western. It wasn’t until encouragement from sprint coach Marty Robertson and strength and conditioning coach Jeff Watson that Kopacz attended a talent ID camp for bobsleigh in April 2013. Less than four months later, he earned an invitation to train with the national team. Three months after that, he raced in his first North American Cup.

Coaches immediately saw his potential. They convinced him that, if he stuck it out for the next four years, “good things could happen.” Kopacz, who competes in both two- and four-man bobsled, knew his decision had been made.

“In those days, I was starting to slowly realize my athletic potential,” said Kopacz, who is currently in Pyeongchang, South Korea preparing for his first go at the bringing home an Olympic medal. “I never fully believed, or understood, what I could until I had a strong supportive push towards the sport from Marty and Jeff. Otherwise, I had never been in a bobsled before that.”

Bobsleds are built to hold two or four athletes. Beginning with a running start, teams push their sleds approximately 50 metres before jumping in and speeding more than 1,000 metres down an ice track at speeds of more than 150 km/h.

Men and women compete in separate two-person events, in which each sled includes a pilot and a brakeman. Beginning with the 2014-15 season, the four-person event, which had been exclusively male, was opened to be able to include female athletes.

All three events consist of four heats held over two days – Feb. 18-21 and 24-25 at the Olympic Sliding Centre. The teams with the lowest cumulative times, measured to the hundredth of a second (0.01), are the winners.

“The experience is incredibly exhilarating,” said Kopacz, adding in a four-man bobsleigh, you have immediate reference points all around (the track) giving you an impressive sense of speed. “The track twists and drops so aggressively that it becomes very difficult to maintain an upright position, let alone a stable aerodynamic position for a race. Through these twists and turns, you can experience momentary forces of up to five to six Gs.

“Much more aggressive than a roller coaster, the sound of the sled tearing over the ice is almost deafening. The whole ride lasts up to 60 seconds and you’re left with a huge adrenaline rush.”

Bobsledder Alex Kopacz

Working at Robarts Research Institute when his bobsledding career began to take shape, Kopacz juggled contracts in (competition) season, however balancing work and training became difficult the more he dedicated himself to the sport.

After his first season, Kopacz joined the World Cup circuit in 2014-15, competing in his first World Championships. The following year, he celebrated his first World Cup podium when he was part of a four-man crew that won bronze in Lake Placid. Along with teammate Justin Kripps, who’ll join him in Pyeongchang, Kopacz earned four podiums last season, capturing the Crystal Globe as overall World Cup champions.

While the Olympics seemed like the next logical step, he understood nothing was guaranteed. He simply tried to do his best “to maintain my motivation by fixating on the end goal.”

Canada had its most successful Olympic bobsleigh performance at Vancouver 2010, winning three medals, highlighted by the gold and silver in the women’s two-man by Kaillie Humphries (with Heather Moyse) and Helen Upperton (with Shelley-Ann Brown). Lyndon Rush also piloted his four-man sled (with Chris Le Bihan, David Bissett and Lascelles Brown) to bronze.

Humphries and Moyse successfully defended their gold medal at Sochi 2014. That came 50 years after Canada’s first Olympic bobsleigh gold was won by the four-man crew of Vic Emery, Doug Anakin, Peter Kirby and John Emery at Innsbruck in 1964. Canada’s only other gold medal was won by Pierre Lueders and Dave MacEachern when they tied for first place in the two-man event at Nagano in 1998. Lueders also won two-man silver with Brown at Turin in 2006.

For Kopacz, the realization he is an Olympian will “likely come once I am there witnessing the Opening Ceremony,” but he will quickly need to re-focus and prepare himself for the toughest competition in his entire, yet short, career.

“I am most grateful for the ability to perform under stress, the ability to persevere in the face of doubt and obstacles, as well as knowing how much belief in one’s self can do to accomplish any task,” he explained, noting being on the same page as his teammates is vital to success, with fractions of seconds the difference between a podium finish and going home.

“Having a strong team bond is what helps the team overcome the obstacles of the season and reach new heights in terms of performance,” he said. “The teams that do not push for each other do not have as good of a result as those that do.”

While Kopacz will be more than 10,000 kms from home for the next few weeks, he knows there are so many people back home in London, and Western, cheering him on.

“I am grateful to the village of people that have supported me on my journey,” he said. “You can only be as strong as the group that supports you. I am proud to say there are many of those at Western.”

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Bobsledder Alex KopaczGetting into the sport: Started bobsleigh when he was 23.

Dream Job: With his Mechanical Engineering degree from Western, his dream job would be to work for a big project company such as NASA, SpaceX or Tesla.

Off the track: Enjoys playing piano, guitar and taking Latin dance class.

Favourite motto: Sic Magna Parvis (From small things come great things).

Superstition or Good Luck? He always wears a bandana former German bobsledder Olaf Hampel, his trainer and mentor, wore while winning two Olympic gold medals. He also listens to the same playlist for every race of an entire season.

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Read more about Western’s connections to the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, Korea: