Bobsledder Kaillie Humphries is an Olympic favorite. The problem: She doesn’t have a country

·12-min read

Kaillie Humphries is a “no-bullsh*t” five-time world champion with three Olympic medals and dreams of more. And so, day after sunny SoCal day this fall, she pushed her tattooed body to the brink. She squatted, lifted and sprinted. She drove a homemade "frame sled" down a quiet cul-de-sac in Carlsbad, drawing amused glances from neighbors.

She did all of this so that in mid-February, she can hurtle down a mile-long Chinese bobsled track to win yet another Olympic gold. Maybe two. She’s already a legend of the sport. “The best of the best,” she says. She submits to punishing workouts and perilous practice runs, even at age 36, to stay on top.

And yet, on some monotonous mornings this year, in between grueling sets, she questioned everything. Is this all a waste of time? What’s the point? Her shoulders would slump. Her insides would deflate. Tears would occasionally flow.

Because, with the Beijing Olympics less than three months away, she isn’t sure whether she’ll be allowed to compete.

“And it's not that I'm not the best,” she says. “It's that I don't have a passport.”

ALTENBERG, GERMANY - FEBRUARY 14: Kaillie Humphries of the United States celebrates winning the Women’s Monobob (Heat 4) at the IBSF World Championships 2021 Altenberg competition at Eiskanal Altenberg on February 14, 2021 in Altenberg, Germany. (Photo by Martin Rose/Getty Images)
Kaillie Humphries celebrates winning the women’s monobob at the 2021 IBSF World Championships in Altenberg, Germany. (Martin Rose/Getty Images)

Humphries, a native of Calgary, won two golds and a bronze for Canada last decade. Then, in 2018, she accused Canada’s coach of abuse. Fearing for her safety, she left to join Team USA. As a U.S. resident with an American husband, she won world championships in 2020 and 2021.

But Olympic rules require athletes to be “nationals” of the country they represent. Humphries will eventually qualify for U.S. citizenship via marriage; she wedded Travis Armbruster in 2019. U.S. immigration law, however, states that three years of “marital union” is a prerequisite. Humphries, with just over two years under her belt, was told she’d have to wait for a passport until summer 2023.

So she and her team began scrambling, Googling, contacting immigration lawyers and politicians and Olympic officials in search of a route to the Games. She petitioned the International Olympic Committee to consider her extenuating circumstances; it refused. She probed standard citizenship processes; they've lagged.

Now, she may qualify for an exemption, and could have a passport by the time the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation names its Olympic team on Jan. 16 — but clocks are ticking.

Humphries’ application is in a race against time through a backlogged system. She remains “stateless” and helpless, worrying about the message her potential Olympic exclusion would send to athletes stuck in abusive environments, and unable to prevent her mind from drifting toward a “scary” hypothetical: “There might not be a happy ending. Realistically … I might not get to go.”

“But at the end of the day, I wouldn't change what I've done,” she says. “I stood up to a bully. I had to leave my country, my environment and everything I knew. I had to do it for my safety and for my health. And I don't regret it for a single second.”

Humphries vs. Hays and Team Canada

The alleged bullying began not long after Todd Hays, a former U.S. Olympic bobsledder, 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. Armbruster, her then-boyfriend and now husband, remembers seeing the stress accumulate, then realizing: “It wasn't stress, it was more fear.”

After the season, Humphries returned to California. Downtime and distance granted her a temporary reprieve. But as a new season neared, fear returned. Rashes and other physical symptoms came with it, she and Armbruster have said.

That summer, after reiterating some concerns and allegations in emails, she 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 2011-2014. 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 says 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 says, gave her “lip service.” (A BCS spokesman, in a 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 well-being.

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

Bobsleigh - Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics - Women's Competition - Olympic Sliding Centre - Pyeongchang, South Korea - February 20, 2018 - Kaillie Humphries and Phylicia George of Canada in action. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann
Kaillie Humphries won a bronze medal with brakeman Phylicia George in the 2018 Winter Games. (REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann)

An American love story

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 says.

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. And in hindsight, they both realize, if they’d fast-tracked the wedding or legally married immediately in September 2018, Humphries’ Olympic conundrum might have been solved by now. Three years in marital union would have already passed. At the time, though, Humphries says, “I never thought that this was going to be my path. 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 says, “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 says 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 says, 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.

The push to get citizenship before Beijing Games

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 with hope, but also with the knowledge that it might not provide her a path to the 2022 Olympics. “There was a general understanding,” says Aron McGuire, the current USA Bobsled and Skeleton CEO, “that through marriage, she would not get citizenship in time to compete for the United States in Beijing.” Humphries and her team, therefore, had to find a way to speed up the process.

They wanted to operate lawfully, and respectfully of less privileged citizenship seekers, Humphries and others say. They worked behind the scenes, with the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee and plenty others. They emailed Congressmen. A spokesman for Rep. Mike Levin (D-Calif.) confirmed that Levin’s office has been working with Humphries “since 2019 to adjust her immigration status.” Senators, including Mitt Romney (R-Utah), have supported the effort as well, the spokesman said. Multiple people mentioned the possibility of a private bill, similar to the provision sponsored by late Senator Carl Levin (D-Mich.) in 2005 that allowed Canadian-born figure skater Tanith Belbin to compete for the U.S. But they concluded that a similar measure for Humphries likely wasn’t feasible.

Humphries also tried reasoning with the IOC. She points 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.

“She did what she was supposed to do. She stood up for herself. She went to the appropriate people,” Armbruster says. “Yet when you do, you're absolutely isolated, ostracized, criticized, you're kicked off the team, you're not given a way to compete again.”

The IOC, unmoved, declined to bend its rules. When asked by Yahoo Sports whether there is any route to the Olympics for athletes who leave their team to escape abuse, an IOC spokesperson did not directly answer the question.

So Humphries focused her energy on U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. She worked with multiple attorneys at the law firm Jackson Lewis. With their help, she filed for citizenship in February. As months drifted away without progress, optimism on the periphery of her case seemed to wane. “I don’t think it’s looking good for her,” one Olympic official said earlier this month. Even Humphries, in a Nov. 3 interview, occasionally spoke about how it’s “gonna suck,” and how it’s “going to be” hard to watch the Games from home.

But she and Armbruster also mentioned a recent development. Armbruster landed a job with a medical imaging company that’s based in the U.S., but that will send him across Europe and Asia throughout the coming year to service clients, he says. The gig could qualify Humphries for an exemption that waives the three-year marital union requirement for the spouses of U.S. citizens working abroad.

Humphries’ team, citing privacy, would not confirm that it is seeking this exemption, but said it’s confident that her application is legally sound. The spokesman for Rep. Levin confirmed that an expedited case review for naturalization “is now underway, and we are hopeful it will be approved in time for the Olympic games.”

If it is, Humphries will head to China as a favorite.

And if it isn’t?

“It's one race,” she says. “And as much as that one race is my entire life and career and means the world to me, I need to be aware that I'm more than one race. And I think Simone Biles did a great job of showcasing that to the world this past Games. And it was really motivating for me to see that. To know that your health, your safety, your mental state, your physical state, is so much more important than one single event. Even if that event is the Olympics.”

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