Gridiron to the track: Canadian bobsled pilot Nick Poloniato turning heads
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Nick Poloniato was so used to delivering blows on the football field that he never expected to be knocked over by bobsled.
A standout defensive back in university, Poloniato had designs on attending a CFL training camp when his dreams were dashed by a broken leg.
But once he got back to full health, and with his competitive fires still burning, the Hamilton native searched for an outlet.
He found one in bobsled.
"It kind of just hit me right in the face," said Poloniato. "I was so focused on playing football. Obviously I knew about bobsled and I watched it, but I never made the connection that it could actually be me until the opportunity was right in front of me.
"You get such an adrenaline rush. It just snowballed so quickly and I realized I had the potential to maybe go to the Olympics."
That's the ultimate goal for Poloniato, who has forced his way onto the Canadian team as one of three men's pilots for the World Cup in 2016-17, which gets underway Friday and Saturday in Whistler, B.C.
Poloniato jumped into the pilot's seat when he took up the sport in 2012 — newcomers usually spend at least a year as a brakeman — before climbing up the development ranks the last three years.
He had already raced in World Cup events and was tabbed to take on more of a role this season with Calgary's Chris Spring and Justin Kripps of Summerland, B.C., already cemented in Canada's sleds, but Poloniato announced he was ready for a full-time gig after some eye-popping results this fall.
"It's a little bit of a surprise," said Chris Le Bihan, high performance director for Canada's bobsled and skeleton team. "Coming through the selection races he was showing outstanding performances. Our whole philosophy in the program is if you earn something you get something.
"Excellence comes from a greater pool of people building each other up, forcing each other to get better, looking at different ways to do things."
The soft-spoken Poloniato also won a four-man race on the second-tier North American Cup last month in Calgary before claiming a two-man event in Whistler ahead of the World Cup campaign.
"He's always had that attitude of: 'It's not good enough,'" said Canadian bobsled pilot coach Lyndon Rush, who won bronze with Le Bihan in four-man at the 2010 Olympics in Whistler. "He's never happy with his run, and I really like that about him."
Many bobsledders transition to the sport later in life, and football players are no different. The 29-year-old Poloniato points to former CFLer Jesse Lumsden, who competed for Canada at the last two Olympics and is back in the fold with preparations under way for the 2018 Games in South Korea, as one of the reasons he decided the sport could be right for him.
"I heard his story," Poloniato said of Lumsden, who grew up near Hamilton in Burlington, Ont. "I was like: 'Well, maybe I can try bobsled out and see how it goes.'"
Rush said apart from their obvious physical attributes, the toughness and team-first mentality athletes with a football background bring are key in a setting where personal jealousies can sometimes bubble to the surface.
"They understand the rivalry side," said Rush. "And they can keep going when things hurt."
Kaillie Humphries, who topped the women's bobsled podium at both the 2010 and 2014 Games, is also set to begin ramping up her push for an Olympic three-peat this weekend on the track where she won her first gold. The 31-year-old from Calgary will alternate between brakemen Melissa Lotholz of Barrhead, Alta., and Toronto's Cynthia Appiah this season with Pyeongchang clearly in her sights.
"We still have a lot of learning to do," said Humphries, who finished second at last season's world championships with Lotholz. "We're really working on getting things up to where they're great come the Olympic year."
Poloniato, Spring and Kripps will each pilot two- and four-man sleds in Whistler, while Canada's skeleton racers are also set to compete.
Poloniato said Spring and Kripps have been nothing but supportive.
"There's never been any sort of animosity, any sort of pushback from those guys," said Poloniato. "Even this year, it's almost like it's creating a better competitive atmosphere for all three of us. We're all on the same team here."
While that's true, Spring and Kripps have had run-ins with each other in the past.
"It's never easy to make tough decisions, but it's easy to make the right decisions for the right reasons," said Le Bihan. "It really comes down to the performance of the individual athlete that allows them to earn what they get."
Poloniato has earned everything he's got in bobsled to this point, but the humble former football player isn't going to fool himself into thinking the road ahead, and the chance to grab a spot at the Olympics, won't be even more difficult.
"That's everyone's ultimate goal," he said. "That's become a huge dream over the past three years, but that's not something I sit and daydream about."
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