With the start of the 2022 Winter Olympic Games, a Western Mustangs tradition is also afoot.
Representing Team Canada, Kristen Bujnowski, BA’15, BESc’15, and Sara Villani, BA’19, are the second and third varsity track and field alumni to become Olympic bobsled brake persons.
The first was Alex Kopacz, BESc’13, who captured gold with Justin Kripps at the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Bujnowski was in Pyeongchang too, as an alternate, vowing to leave the sidelines for the start line by 2022. That same year, Villani tried bobsled for the first time.
Four fast years later, Bujnowski’s reached her goal, in Beijing as part of Canada’s top two-women sled with teammate Christine de Bruin. Just one year after an impressive IBSF World Cup debut, Villani was also named to the Olympic team as brakewoman for Melissa Lotholz—and with Kopacz as her coach.
“We can expect to see top performance from Sara,” said Kopacz, who is also coaching men’s bobsled alternate, Cyrus Gray. “She always brings her mental focus to any performance situation. She can be tired, hurt or feeling down, but when it’s her rep or race, she completely blocks it out and delivers.”
Crash start, formidable finish
Villani’s first run down the track at a 2018 bobsled training camp in Calgary ended in a crash. Undeterred, she got back up and finished out the week. Arriving back home in Norval, Ont., she recalls announcing, “I’m going to be a bobsledder.”
“It’s definitely an adrenaline-kicked sport,” Villani said from her training grounds in Germany, before heading to Beijing. “Bobsleigh attracts a certain crowd. There are tons of people who get to the top of the hill, and decide it’s not for them, or they get to the bottom after a crash, and say, ‘Nope.’”
Not Villani. Her mother recognized the lack of fear and abundant energy early on and put her in gymnastics. “I was the type of kid who would jump into a pool, not knowing how to swim, so I think my mom was looking for a way to direct that,” Villani said.
By the time Villani arrived at King’s University College to study thanatology and psychology, her focus had shifted to track and field. She won the 2015 Junior National Championships in the heptathlon, qualifying her to represent Canada at the Junior Pan Am Games in Edmonton. The following year, despite injuring her ankle in long-jump warm-up, she earned a gold in the pentathlon at the OUA championships. She was named 2018 track and field MVP track and field and holds the Western record for shot put.
Villani was recruited to try bobsled after being selected as the Ontario regional final winner at RBC Training Ground 2018.
She made the national development team by October 2019, and in their 2021 bobsled season debut, Villani and de Bruin placed fifth in a women’s World Cup race ahead of former Canadian teammate Kaillie Humphries.
“In Bobsleigh, you have to be incredibly fast and powerful to move a 170-kilo sled up to speed as quickly as possible within 30 metres,” Villani said. That makes training for the Olympics a 24-hour job, seven days a week, she added.
Apart from the long days of training on the track and in the gym, there’s physio and active recovery.
“Your body is your work,” Villani said. “You have to water it properly and fuel it properly. You also have to get your sleep and look after your mental health.”
That aspect became particularly important once the pandemic hit. Lockdowns and restrictions altered training plans and delayed joining the World Cup circuit. The virus also kept athletes away from loved ones, with the fear of testing positive looming before the games.
“From what I understand, for the 2018 Olympics, and other years previous to COVID-19, all you had to worry about was qualifying,” Villani said. “Now you have to worry about qualifying, staying healthy and keeping away from the virus.”
Push, pull and prep
Television spectators may only see a portion of the brake person’s work, pushing the sled up to speed at the top of the race. Once they hop in, their job is to then stay as still as possible before braking on the pilot’s command.
What’s not seen is important “grunt work,” Villani said. That includes loading and unloading the sleds from a truck, and sanding and polishing the runners, before attaching and aligning them to the sleigh.
Villani compares the routine to the rigors of rowing, a sport both she and Bujnowski also tried as Mustangs.
“The more grunt work you do, the more you see it in the performance,” she said.
But Villani draws most from her time as a pentathlon competitor.
“That event really helped me learn how to move on, whether the event went really well or badly,” she said. “You have to move on because there is another event coming up. You can’t stay in that super-high, adrenaline state or super-low because it’s not over. That attitude is super helpful in bobsled because heat one may not go so well, but it doesn’t matter, because there’s another one coming up.”
Bujnowski shares the same push-through perspective, with the motto ‘fight on’ inked above her ear. She chose the tattoo after her experience as an alternate at the 2018 Olympics. It also reflects her overall journey—overcoming one injury after another since her early track days at high school and at Western.
The Mount Brydges, Ont., native became a Mustang while pursuing a double degree in kinesiology and mechanical engineering. She excelled at long jump and shot put, despite ongoing pain in her right knee, which forced her to jump with her left foot.
As she settled into a career upon leaving Western, she gave up sports for a year and a half. She found her way back, through cross-fit, and a long-held dream to represent Canada on the world stage. After a solid performance at a Toronto bobsled testing camp, she soon left her job to train full time in Calgary, where she is the reigning ice-house champ.
With four bronze medals in six World Cup races in the 2021-22 season under their belts, Bujnowski and de Bruin head into the Olympics strong.
Bujnowski recently reflected on her “incredible journey” to get to the games on Instagram, writing:
“Four years ago, I was selected to be an alternate at the 2018 Games. I have many great memories from that experience, but I knew I was capable of more. I am proud to be named to Team Canada and to now compete in Beijing. It is honestly a dream come true.”
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Official Olympic bobsled schedule