After fleeing Canada to escape alleged abuse, Kaillie Humphries wins gold for USA

·9 min read

YANQING, China — There were times when Kaillie Humphries, stuck between countries, and between ambition and alleged abuse, wondered whether this moment would come.

There were days when her shoulders would slump, and her insides would deflate, and tears would flow.

There were dreams of the gold medal Humphries ultimately won here on Monday, of speeding down a bobsled track faster than any other woman in the world, of standing atop monobob’s inaugural Olympic podium, victorious.

But for years, Humphries was “stateless” and helpless. She’d won three Olympic medals for Canada last decade. She then defected to escape a coach. As a U.S. resident with an American husband, she won world championships for Team USA in 2020 and 2021. Three months ago, however, she didn’t have a second passport — and therefore, per Olympic rules, didn’t have a route to these Beijing Games.

In December, the U.S. granted her one, and that’s why she pulled on a helmet emblazoned with an American flag on Monday. She leapt into a star-spangled bobsled, and drove clear of the field by a whopping 1.54 seconds. She held her arms aloft, and grabbed a flag, and chanted, “U-S-A!” She scrunched her face, fending off emotion, as she stood behind a podium, then stepped onto it, and sung the anthem. She felt every word.

Because she wanted to “give back to a country that has adopted me, that has given me a longer career, and has given me a safe place to compete,” she said.

Without it — without U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, specifically — she wouldn’t be here.

Years of abuse

The alleged bullying of the world’s best female bobsledder began not long after Todd Hays took over as Canada’s head coach in 2017. Humphries, in various formal and informal complaints since, has recalled being “publicly demeaned,” “mentally abused” and “verbally attacked.” There was the time Hays allegedly screamed at her during a meeting. There were the alleged insults that left her in tears at a hotel bar, astonished and humiliated.

It was not one incident. It allegedly became a pattern, and left Humphries feeling “disrespected, degraded, demoralized, worthless, unsafe, emotionally exhausted, and overwhelmed.” It took a physical toll, too. Headaches escalated to migraines; “excruciating eye, neck, and jaw pain”; and "sleepless nights," Humphries said. Around the time she attempted to defend back-to-back gold medals at the 2018 Olympics, “my menstrual cycle became irregular,” she said. Her then-boyfriend and now husband, Travis Armbruster, remembered seeing the stress accumulate, then realizing: “It wasn't stress, it was more fear.”

That summer, after reiterating some concerns and allegations in emails, Humphries formalized them in a 12-page complaint. Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton (BCS) appointed a firm to investigate. Hays denied the allegations, and at least one witness interviewed by investigators characterized the friction between Humphries and Hays as two-sided. The witness, according to an arbitrator’s review of the investigation, said Hays and Humphries “never saw eye to eye,” and that Humphries “was defensive and caustic in her responses.” Investigators ultimately concluded that there was insufficient evidence to substantiate her claims of harassment.

But the arbitrator later found that the investigation “was neither thorough nor reasonable,” and had come to conclusions before interviewing any witnesses. It didn’t delve into prior experiences of athletes under Hays, who’d coached the U.S. women’s team from 2011-14. One member of those teams told Yahoo Sports that Hays, a 6-foot-2 former college linebacker and kickboxer, often left her and some teammates feeling “scared and confused, and fearful for our safety.” The team designed a "buddy system" because they were afraid to approach Hays alone. Their concerns — which they shared with the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation’s then-CEO Darrin Steele at a meeting after one season, the U.S. slider said — align with much of what Humphries has detailed.

Humphries, all along, felt the investigation was “very biased.” She felt that BCS had sided with Hays. At a lengthy May 2018 meeting, president Sarah Storey “made it seem like everything was my fault,” Humphries claimed. A year later, after sitting out the 2018-19 season, Humphries said she informed BCS that she’d like to return — under one main condition: “Give me a different coach. … I don't need people fired, I just can't work with [Hays].”

The federation, Humphries said, gave her “lip service.” (A BCS spokesman, in a November statement, declined to address Humphries’ allegations, and declined to make Hays or Storey available for an interview.) And that’s when Humphries decided, after consulting with psychologists, that it was over. That she couldn’t compete for Canada anymore. That she shouldn’t jeopardize her wellbeing.

Around that time, she also realized she had another option. “And that,” she says, “is when I reached out to Team USA.”

Kaillie Humphries (center), while representing Team Canada, celebrates a bronze medal following women's bobsled event during the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games in South Korea, Feb. 21, 2018. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press via AP)
Kaillie Humphries (center), while representing Team Canada, celebrates a bronze medal following women's bobsled event during the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games in South Korea, Feb. 21, 2018. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press via AP)

Bittersweet split with Team Canada

Long before the alleged abuse, before it sent Humphries in search of options, a year after she won a second consecutive gold in 2014, Armbruster typed up a Facebook message and hit send. He was, at the time, an unknown Californian. But he’d had his own brief stint as a bobsledder. He’d heard about Humphries’ fight against gender inequities in the sport. He figured he’d reach out to lend support. He had no idea this would turn into a marriage’s origin story.

“I was surprised she even messaged me back,” he said.

But Humphries did. They started talking. When she was in Southern California to get a tattoo, Armbruster asked her out on a date. One date became two, then more, then reciprocal visits to California and Calgary. In 2016, with love progressing, they decided to move in together, in California, and see how far it could go.

Two years later, Armbruster proposed. Humphries said yes. At the time, “I never thought that this was going to be my path [to the Olympics],” Humphries said. “The point of getting married wasn't so that I could compete for Team USA.”

But as their September 2019 wedding neared, her dispute with BCS got messy. On Aug. 3, she asked for her release, which would allow her to compete internationally with the United States. Canada, for over a month, refused to grant it. “I was being held sport-hostage for no reason whatsoever,” Humphries said, “other than that I'm really good at what I do.” So on Sept. 11, 2019, three days before the wedding, she sued for her freedom.

That week, amid celebrations with friends and family in San Diego, a private dispute spilled out into the public. One day after the wedding, BCS adopted the results of the investigation (which were later discredited by the arbitrator). Two days after that, with BCS holding firm, a judge denied Humphries' bid for an injunction.

“I don't want to say it was a nightmare,” Armbruster said of the timing — they still found moments for joy. But throughout the week, they felt outside forces pulling at the strings of Humphries’ life. They huddled in corners for tense conversations. On multiple occasions, Armbruster said, Humphries broke down into tears.

Shortly thereafter, she appealed the investigation’s findings, and again pushed for her release. Finally, on Sept. 28, two days before an International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation deadline, Canada relented. Humphries wrote on Instagram that she didn’t know how to feel. She was conflicted, torn between relief that her “purgatory ha[d] ended” but sad that her triumphant career with Canada had ended, too.

“Heartbroken, actually,” she wrote. With a Canadian flag on her wall and a red maple leaf tattoo on her thigh — but as fans accused her of being a “traitor” — she thought back to her proudest moments, standing atop podiums, singing “O Canada.” She realized she might never get to do that again.

But she also felt like an American. Her new challenge, then, was officially becoming one.

Long road to U.S. citizenship

U.S. immigration policy is laid out in a 12-volume, 1,324-page manual that feels like an endless maze. Humphries set out to navigate it in the fall of 2019, knowing that she’d eventually qualify for citizenship by marriage, but also knowing that U.S. immigration law requires three years of “marital union” for eligibility.

“There was a general understanding,” USA Bobsled and Skeleton CEO Aron McGuire told Yahoo Sports last year, “that through marriage, she would not get citizenship in time to compete for the United States in Beijing.”

Humphries, therefore, had to find a way to speed up the process. She began scrambling, Googling, contacting immigration lawyers and politicians and Olympic officials. She tried reasoning with the IOC. She pointed out that “athletes stay in abusive, crappy, horrible environments” precisely because of situations like hers; because they’re forced to choose between Games and safety; because alleging abuse, and ruffling an establishment intent on protecting itself, can detonate Olympic dreams.

American bobsledder Kaillie Humphries kisses her gold medal after winning the monobob event during the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games at the Yanqing National Sliding Centre. (Anton Novoderezhkin\TASS via Getty Images)
American bobsledder Kaillie Humphries kisses her gold medal after winning the monobob event during the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games at the Yanqing National Sliding Centre. (Anton Novoderezhkin\TASS via Getty Images)

The IOC, unmoved, declined to bend its rules, which require athletes to be “nationals” of the country they represent.

So Humphries focused her energy on USCIS. She worked with multiple attorneys at the law firm Jackson Lewis. And they found a breakthrough.

Neither Humphries' team nor U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services have confirmed how she qualified for an exemption to the baseline three-year marriage rule. But in interviews with Yahoo Sports in November, she and Armbruster mentioned that Armbruster had landed a job with a U.S.-based medical imaging company that would send him across Europe and Asia throughout the coming year to service clients. Independently, immigration experts pointed out that Volume 12, Part G, Chapter 4 of the USCIS policy manual waives the three-year marital union requirement for the spouses of U.S. citizens working abroad.

In early December, Humphries, who had been in Europe competing in bobsled World Cup events, flew from Germany to San Diego for her citizenship meeting. She draped an American flag over her shoulders, waved another miniature one in her right hand, beamed, and said: "I’m more emotional than I thought I would be."

Two months later, she donned those same colors in Beijing. She led wire-to-wire in the four-run monobob race, and beat current and former teammates to the Olympic title. And as she stood atop the bobsled world, her breath visible in 10-degree weather, pride and elation welling inside of her, she thought back on all the uncertainty, the powerlessness, the blind faith.

“It all worked,” she said.

“I did it.”

“We did it.”