Jesse Lumsden let football dreams go, prepares for third Olympic Games

PYEONGCHANG, SOUTH KOREA—Jesse Lumsden had his career mapped out.

A football star in university, the running back was going to play in the CFL for a decade or more, rumble to some rushing titles and win a couple of Grey Cups.

But life doesn’t always go according to plan.

Six seasons in the professional game wore down his body. A serious knee injury that required surgery was the final blow in September 2010.

Having already served as a brakeman for Canadian bobsled pilot Pierre Lueders at that year’s Olympics in Vancouver and Whistler, B.C., Lumsden decided it was time to once again become a one-sport athlete the following spring when he retired from the gridiron to focus on his winter passion.

And as he prepares for his third Games, the 35-year-old is at peace with the way things played out.

“How many athletes end their sporting careers early for whatever reason?” said Lumsden, the winner of the Hec Crighton Trophy in 2004 as the top player in Canadian university football. “Bobsled gave me that second opportunity. It gave me the wick with which I could still burn my competitive spirit.

“I loved to compete and I didn’t want to stop.”

After finishing fifth in both the two- and four-man with Lueders at the 2010 Games, the Burlington, Ont., product won silver in two-man at the 2012 world championships pushing for Lyndon Rush before the pair combined for the overall World Cup title the next season.

But Lumsden stepped away from the sport after the bitter disappointment of missing the podium at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

The draw of bobsled was too strong, however, and he returned to the national team two years later in the lead-up to the Winter Games in Pyeongchang.

“I’m glad I got to come into this sport at the age that I did with the experiences I’ve had,” he said. “It’s set myself up to be a better, more equipped bobsledder.

“I appreciate it a lot more, especially having taken a little bit of time off.”

Lumsden is just one member of a solid crew of Canadian brakemen ready to push for pilots Justin Kripps of Summerland, B.C., Calgary’s Chris Spring and Hamilton’s Nick Poloniato when the bobsled competition begins Sunday.

The veteran horsepower also includes Lascelles Brown, a 43-year-old two-time Olympic medallist from Calgary who has competed at every Games since 2002, and 37-year-old Neville Wright of Edmonton.

“These types of characters, veterans, big dogs, gladiators . . . they’re the ones,” said Canadian high performance director Chris Le Bihan, himself a former brakeman. “To slide for this long and still want it, still be the best . . . it’s impressive.”

Canada also has a wealth of less experienced talent hungry to get on the podium after all six of the country’s men’s sleds were shut out in 2014, led by 28-year-old Alex Kopacz of London, Ont., and 30-year-old former Olympic sprinter Seyi Smith of Ottawa.

“This is as deep as it’s been for Canada,” said Le Bihan, a bronze medallist in four-man in 2010. “We’ve never had this many athletes at this calibre of performance.”

Apart from his ability at the start of races, Lumsden, who is scheduled to push for Kripps in the four-man and Poloniato in the two-man, has also brought a unique energy from his days on the football field.

“You watch football movies and there will be somebody giving an inspirational speech,” said Kripps. “That’s Jesse to me. He feeds off of it.

“When I look over at him on race day, I can see in his eyes, he’s ready to go to battle for me and with me.”

And then there’s the team aspect from Lumsden’s former profession that’s different from the traditional bobsled culture where rivalries can bubble up within a country’s program.

It’s no secret Kripps and Spring have had their issues in the past — the pair seem fine now — but Le Bihan said having an athlete that has been in a true locker-room environment is key.

“Those are the guys that bring that element of camaraderie,” said Le Bihan, a 2010 Olympic bronze medallist in four-man. “You can’t compete at the highest level without having an edge.

“Everyone’s going to push fast, everyone’s going to drive well, and everyone’s going to have good equipment. What do you have that’s going to lift you that one little per cent, that little piece that’s going to get you that extra hundredth of a second?

“That’s where you win an Olympic medal.”

It’s not the way he thought things would play out when he was running over defenders on his way to the end zone, but right now, Lumsden wouldn’t want to be anywhere other than at the bobsled track in Pyeongchang.

“It was like the door not only closed (on football), but it was forcing me to get out,” he said. “Like there was a fire behind the door and I needed to get out that window.

“But I don’t have any regrets.”