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Kaillie Humphries, world's best bobsledder, wants to compete for US at Beijing Olympics. Here's why she may not.

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CARLSBAD, Calif. — Kaillie Humphries’ skin is like a canvas, the dozens of tattoos that cover much of her body reflecting her feelings about her family, her sport, herself.

It is fitting, then, that for her most recent one, Humphries chose the word “Strength,” etching it in bold, script letters across the back of her right leg, just above her knee. Strength is what has gotten her to where she is, both in the sport of bobsled, where she is the most successful female driver ever, and in life.

Less than three months before the Beijing Olympics begin, the Canadian-born Humphries is effectively stateless, her hopes of competing at the Winter Games in limbo.

She decided two years ago that she could no longer represent Canada without jeopardizing her health and well-being after accusing a team coach of verbal and mental abuse. The case is ongoing, with the results of one investigation already tossed out and the coach suing Humphries for defamation.

She wants to compete for the United States, where she and her American husband make their home in this city 45 minutes north of San Diego, and Team USA very much wants to have her. Since donning the red, white and blue in 2019, Humphries has won three world titles and further elevated what was already a strong program.

But the wait for U.S. citizenship is long even in the best circumstances, let alone when you need it to compete at a Games that begin Feb. 4.

While the circumstances of Humphries’ case might be unique, they also have put a spotlight on a universal problem: the inordinate amount of power and control that coaches and federations can have over Olympic-hopeful athletes, leaving them vulnerable to abuse.

Speak out, and you might find yourself off a team. Complain, and you might find the money that funds your training has dried up. Advocate for yourself, and you might be labeled as a malcontent and ostracized.

Stay silent, or stay simply because you feel you have nowhere else to go, and you might achieve the dream for which you have sweated and sacrificed your entire life.

“Our biggest fear is not going to the Games,” Humphries, a two-time Olympic gold medalist for Canada, said. “That power imbalance can be very abused, and more athletes would speak up if they knew there was a safe place for them to go where they could still do their job.

“Why do I have to give up an Olympics? Because my coach verbally and mentally abused me? That's not fair to me, nor is it right. But that's where we're at,” Humphries added. “I'm stateless, stuck in the middle, and more athletes would find themselves in this scenario, which is why no one speaks up. You just put up with it, you deal with it. Because I'd rather just go to the Games and that's not fair. That shouldn't happen.

“No athlete should have to choose their safety over sport.”

Bobsleigh Canada, citing the ongoing case, did not make Todd Hays, the coach Humphries has accused of abuse; federation president Sarah Storey; or high-performance director Chris Le Bihan available. But, in a statement, the federation said it “abides by” its harassment and discrimination policy, in effect since 2006.

'Live out that dream'

The bobsled competition begins nine days after the Beijing Olympics open. As the reigning world champion in both two-man and monobob, which is making its Olympic debut, Humphries will be the heavy favorite in both events.

If she is able to compete.

While individual sports have less-stringent rules, the International Olympic Committee requires athletes to be citizens of the countries they represent.

Humphries is eligible for U.S. citizenship by virtue of both residency – she's lived in the United States since 2016 – and marriage – she and Travis Armbruster, a former bobsledder, have been married since 2019. But her application is subject to the same, laborious process as anyone else applying for citizenship, and Humphries was initially told she should not expect it to be approved until after the Olympics.

Her cause has been bolstered by a small but influential army of supporters. USA Bobsled. The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee. Senators and congressmen, from both parties.

"We have assisted Kaillie in expediting a case review for naturalization with U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS), which is now underway, and we are hopeful it will be approved in time for the Olympic Games," Rep. Mike Levin, D-Calif, whose district includes where Humphries and Armbruster live, said in a statement.

"This work was done in partnership with colleagues in Senator Alex Padilla’s office, along with support from the offices of Senators Mitt Romney, Mike Lee and Kirsten Gillibrand."

Humphries and Armbruster said they are not looking to skirt any laws. All they're asking is that if USCIS is going to approve her request for citizenship anyway, it does so before Jan. 16, the deadline for USA Bobsled to name the Beijing team.

John Exner, Humphries’ immigration attorney, said USCIS officials understand the urgency and have expressed sympathy for her circumstances. But the backlog created by COVID-19 has not helped what is, even in ordinary times, a lengthy process.

“If she doesn’t (get citizenship), she will not be able to compete. That would be a really disappointing story, for her and for the country,” Exner said. “I think a lot of people would ask 'Why? Why couldn’t we approve this case more quickly?’ And I don’t think there’s an answer besides manpower and resources.

“We’re not asking them to deviate from their normal process,” Exner added. “They have a procedure for requesting expedited processing, and we’ve received some indication that they agree with us that her case is deserving of expedited processing.”

One of the steps in the approval process is an in-person interview to be conducted in the U.S. That is no small thing given Humphries will be racing in Europe for much of the next two months in order to qualify for Beijing.

But if getting her citizenship in time for the 2022 Games means flying back to the U.S. for a day for the interview and then flying back to Europe, Humphries will gladly do it.

“(Knowing) what standing on the top of the podium is like, singing your national anthem, but to do so for a country that I have chosen, and that has chosen me back, to do so for a country that has provided me the freedom and the safety and the opportunity to be the best version of myself, I am beyond motivated and so excited for that moment,” said Humphries, who represented Canada when she won gold at the 2010 and 2014 Olympics.

“This is a country that I very much love and have grown accustomed to. It's where I have chosen to raise my family and where I choose to live and the community I choose to be a part of,” Humphries said. “To be able to give back to the country as a whole, to sing the Star-Spangled Banner and wear the red, white and blue, it's very empowering for me, and I am so excited to do everything I can to live out that dream.”

'I wouldn't change anything'

Two months before the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, Humphries called Armbruster and told him she was thinking about quitting. Considering she would win three World Cup events before the Games, and claim the overall title that season, even the thought of skipping the Olympics was shocking.

“That’s when you go, 'Holy crap.’ Who does that? Nobody does that two months before the Games,” Armbruster said.

Humphries says now that she was being verbally and emotionally abused by Hays, hired by Bobsleigh Canada before the 2017-18 season. She says she complained to the federation, including Storey and Le Bihan, throughout the season, to no avail.

Kaillie Humphries competes in the monobob during the  IBSF Bob and Skeleton World Cup, this month.
Kaillie Humphries competes in the monobob during the IBSF Bob and Skeleton World Cup, this month.

In a formal complaint to Bobsleigh Canada, filed in August 2018, Humphries detailed multiple incidents of Hays yelling at and belittling her, including at least one that occurred in front of other people. The argument, which occurred at a hotel bar in Igls, Austria, where the team was staying for a World Cup race, came after Humphries said she asked for additional time with the team's massage therapist.

"The conversation became very heated. Other people were snickering and discussing us," Humphries wrote. "I felt at this point I was fighting for my life, because the disagreement escalated very quickly to personal and professional attacks. Todd said, `You do not deserve all the support you get.' 'You demand too much of the staff and your teammates, and it's unwarranted.' 'You are not liked, respected or trusted by your fellow teammates.' "

Humphries said Hays, part of the U.S. team that won a silver medal in four-man bobsled at the 2002 Olympics, also told the double gold medalist that, "I know what it takes to win and your immature attitude clearly shows me you do not."

This wasn’t simply a matter of clashing personalities, Humphries said. As time went on, she said her interactions with Hays, as well as the thought of future ones, began affecting her emotionally and physically. She developed migraines and broke out in rashes.

“Because of that power imbalance, because of it being somebody with the ability to make or break Olympic teams, whether it's a coach, high-performance director, CEO, a therapist – that balance needs to be recognized,” Humphries said. “And I think what used to happen 20 years ago, can't be accepted today.

“It's not motivation to publicly humiliate and demean somebody,” she added. “It's not OK to prevent somebody from moving forward based on their gender or their sex. 'You're not good enough because you're a girl, because you're a woman.’ These are things that shouldn’t be accepted within society, but they still are kind of within certain people within sport.”

Humphries sat out the 2018-19 season while an investigator hired by Bobsleigh Canada looked into her complaint.

“Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton has respected the confidentiality of the ongoing legal process relating to Ms. Humphries since the beginning, and will continue to do so, out of respect to all parties involved until the ongoing reinvestigation is complete at which time, we will provide additional comment on the matter,” the federation said in a statement to USA TODAY Sports.

As a three-time Olympic medalist in a nation that loves winter sports, Humphries was a popular figure. She and brakeman Heather Moyse were selected to be Canada’s flagbearers for the closing ceremony at the Sochi Olympics after winning their second gold medal. Later that year, Humphries won the Lou Marsh Award, given to Canada’s top athlete.

But after going public with the allegations against Hays and asking Team Canada to release her so she could compete for the U.S., Humphries was criticized and her motives questioned.

Some even accused her of being a traitor, pointing to the amount of money Canada had invested in her training.

“We wouldn't put our livelihoods, our life, our careers on the line unless we really did believe that this is what happened to us, that this is what we went through and that there was an injustice and a wrong that needs to be corrected,” Humphries said. “We don't just make these claims out of thin air.”

In the fall of 2019, the investigator ruled there was insufficient evidence to support Humphries’ allegations. She appealed to the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada (SDRCC), and an arbitrator ruled in July that the investigation had been “neither thorough nor reasonable.”

“He simply concluded at the outset that there was no case to investigate,” the arbitrator wrote.

The arbitrator ordered that a new investigation be done, this time with the investigator being appointed by the SDRCC.

“As hard as it was to walk away from Team Canada, I also somewhat felt let down by an organization and by the leadership which was supposed to provide a safe environment for me to do my job. And they weren't, and I couldn't take responsibility for that,” Humphries said. “It's not my fault that they let me down, and I needed to do what was best for me.”

Citing her unique circumstances, Humphries appealed to the International Olympic Committee and asked that she be allowed to compete for the U.S. or even as a neutral athlete at the Beijing Olympics. She hoped the IOC would be supportive, if for no other reason than to send the message that athletes are not powerless, and training for and competing at the Olympics should not come at the expense of anyone’s well-being.

But the IOC said no.

So Humphries waits, hoping she’ll be granted U.S. citizenship in time for Beijing. She is realistic about her chances, but at the same time optimistic enough that she has already begun thinking of what tattoo she’ll get to celebrate representing her adopted country at the Olympics.

And no matter what the outcome is, Humphries has no regrets.

“I wouldn't change anything. I wouldn't not have done what I did,” she said. “I needed to say something, I needed to stand up. I was no longer safe in my environment. And I needed to remind myself because the people that were in power to keep me safe were not doing their jobs.

“I was willing to give up an Olympics in order to be safe, but I don't think athletes should have to make that choice,” she added. “And I really hope my story does create some change in regards to that.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Bobsledder Kaillie Humphries wants to compete for US at Beijing Games