Canadian bobsledder Melissa Lotholz starts from scratch with goal of Olympic return

After a year away from bobsleigh, Canada's Melissa Lotholz is back. She's competing on the North America Cup circuit, a step below the World Cup, after Canada lost one of its quota spots last year, and her goals are to qualify for the world championships in February, for next year's World Cup and for the 2026 Olympics.

After year away, Alberta native resumes athletic career with renewed energy, focus

A bobsleigh driver peeks out from her sled.
After a year away from the sport, Canada's Melissa Lotholz, seen above at the 2022 Olympics, is back competing in bobsleigh with her eyes on Milan 2026. (Mark Schiefelbein/The Associated Press)

Perhaps it was a sign.

As Canadian bobsledder Melissa Lotholz returned home from the Beijing Olympics, her social media was hacked. She doesn't know how it happened, and the Canadian Olympic Committee tried to help her recover her Instagram and Facebook pages, but they were gone.

Lotholz soon followed. She took a full year away from sliding to complete her undergraduate degree, dip her toes in other sports and, after eight years of elite-level training, to just have a break.

She didn't even reboot her socials.

"I was like, 'Well, whatever, it's kind of nice for the year off.' I literally dropped off the face of the planet," she said.

Now, Lotholz is back in the sled. She's competing on the North America Cup circuit, a step below the World Cup, after Canada lost one of its quota spots last year. Lotholz's goals are to qualify for the world championships in February, for next year's World Cup and for the 2026 Olympics.

'1 step back, 2 steps forward'

The 31-year-old from tiny Barrhead, Alta., — a town about 120 kilometres northwest of Edmonton with a population 4,591 as of 2022 — has competed twice before at the Olympics, as a brakeman in 2018 and a pilot in 2022. She is the first Canadian woman ever to successfully make that transition within four years.

Lotholz said she views this season on the North America Cup circuit as "one step back to take two steps forward."

"I think having had so much experience under my belt and being the only person on the team that has competed at the last two Games, I have that bigger perspective of like, 'OK, so how do I get to the Olympics in 2026 as a medal threat and be in the best position possible?'" Lotholz said.

That plan began with nothing beyond time away from the sport she'd previously devoted her life toward.

"You've seen that in so many athletes where sometimes like if they take some time off or time away, it actually has helped prolong their careers," she said.

WATCH | Lotholz spurred onto Olympics by Barrhead community:

Melissa Lotholz couldn't have made it to her first Olympic Games without the support of her hometown of Barrhead

6 years ago
Duration 3:25
Growing up on a farm has laid a good foundation for sport and life for the first time Olympian and two-time bobsleigh World Championship silver medallist.

During her year away, Lotholz lived in Edmonton, where she finished her degree in food nutrition and science at the University of Alberta. The physical piece of paper is now waiting for her at home when she returns for Christmas.

On campus, she joined a group where she helped mentor younger athletes, something she says reminded her of her own journey, and helped motivate her to eventually go back to the track.

Lotholz ditched her bobsleigh for more long-distance activities like road cycling and cross-country skiing. She also played volleyball here and there and even tried ballet.

"I think in the end, I just felt like I wasn't done. I spent a lot of time talking with different people and praying about it. And I was actually in a place where I would have been really content to walk away from sport, which I think is a healthy thing," Lotholz said.

"And then I thought, you know what? No. There's still a fire deep inside of me to compete and push myself. And there's still the curiosity of how good can I be."

New world order

But the sport Lotholz returned to wasn't necessarily as she left it. For one, Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton (BCS), the sport's national governing body, was in disarray after the Beijing Olympics as athletes levied allegations of bullying and harassment.

Lotholz said the unrest didn't play a major part in her decision to step away, instead pointing toward general fatigue brought on by the pandemic.

She added that while she's not familiar with the ins and outs of administrative changes, there is a noticeable difference.

"I've come back into a sport where all of a sudden there was two positions on the World Cup versus three. I've come back into a sport where there's been funding cuts. … I'm also taking on more administrative and fundraising things for myself to be able to compete at an elite level, so it's stretching me in new ways all over again, which is one of the things I love and hate about this sport," she said.

And she said that her teammates feel closer than ever — "tough times make tough people."

Lotholz also returned without a spot on the main World Cup circuit and the reality of essentially going back to the minors.

"One of the greatest things about Mel is she's fully bought into that," BCS high-performance director Chris Le Bihan said. "There's a lot of people who would have been like, 'Oh, I want to just go back onto the World Cup and just jump back into right where I left off.'"

Le Bihan added that the less pressurized environment in North America would also be a good way for Lotholz to re-establish her footing on the track.

"Driving a bobsleigh isn't quite like riding a bike. So can't use that expression really. It's highly technical, highly stressful, with a lot of pressure to navigate this thing down an icy chute," he said. "She's only been a pilot four years. So she still has quite a lot of developing to do in order to become a really world class driver."

A bobsleigh slides down a track with Olympic rings.
Lotholz is aiming to compete at her third Olympics. (Daniel Mihailescu/AFP via Getty Images)

Thrill seeker

Lotholz agreed there are positives to be gleaned from the North American Cup, where she has already earned eight medals across nine races.

Plus, she hasn't competed on many tracks in Canada and the U.S. for many years, including Lake Placid, N.Y., where the 2025 world championships will take place.

"I just love the thrill of chasing down that mastery, whether it's the mastery of a corner or the mastery of your push technique and putting those things all together. And then when you have, it can be so frustrating sometimes because you're trying to make like small adjustments at 130 kilometres an hour," she said.

"But when you put it all together, it is so much fun and it feels like the biggest sense of achievement."

And so, with fresh perspective and a new Instagram handle, Lotholz speeds forward, her mind set on Milan 2026.

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