Mimi Rahneva. Photo: Todd Korol
By Dan Plouffe
Netting 4 medals in her debut World Cup season, family the driving force behind rookie sensation’s skeleton career
When Mimi Rahneva was 10, her parents moved their family from Bulgaria to Canada to open more doors for their three daughters in life.
The move serving as the launchpad for an international skeleton career and a sudden Canadian Olympic medal hope – that wasn’t necessarily what they’d envisioned.
“I don’t think they had it quite all planned out,” smiles Rahneva, who’s rocketed onto the World Cup skeleton circuit with an unreal rookie campaign that’s brought her up to #4 in the world rankings. “They’ve made a lot of sacrifices, leaving education and careers behind for our opportunity. I’m definitely very grateful.”
Rahneva’s father, Stoyan, and mother, Valentina, at first worked as delivery drivers and house cleaners since their accounting credentials weren’t recognized in Canada. The transition wasn’t easy for Rahneva either, who knew virtually zero English at the time.
“Not knowing a lot of the language, it was just easier to hang out with people with a common interest in sport,” recalls the Meadowlands Public School grad who quickly signed up for the cross-country running team. “I definitely used sport as a way to connect with people and integrate into a group of friends.”
Within a year, Rahneva announced she’d be going to summer camps with the Ottawa Lions Track-and-Field Club, cycling from her family’s townhouse near the Nepean Sportsplex to Terry Fox Athletic Facility and back daily (quite the bike ride for a preteen).
“I was determined,” reflects Rahneva. “I even rollerbladed when I had a flat tire. Nothing would stop me.”
The Merivale High School grad continued to build her athletic repertoire while with the Marauders, adding wrestling to running, and later touch football, though it was with a strong group of athletes and program that she settled into rugby as her primary pursuit.
The former Ottawa Banshees club player went on to win 3 Ontario gold and 4 Canadian bronze medals with the Guelph University Gryphons before deciding she’d like to take a crack at sliding head-first down a bobsled track, taking her first run at Lake Placid with the Ontario program.
“It’s like a really fast toboggan run – one where you kind of like, ‘Ooh, should I really have gone down this hill? It’s a little steep...’” describes Rahneva. “It was insane. Full focus. Everything you’re experiencing, every sense is heightened. First run was just craziness. You can’t control much. You don’t know anything.
“It slowly progressed to, ‘Why don’t you look for this entrance? Or why don’t you get height here?’ Then it became so detailed and so precise that I just got obsessed with it.”
Rahneva packed up and moved west in 2014 to setup shop at the national team’s home base in Calgary. Before the current dream season came “a lot of ups and downs.”
Financing her pursuits was a chief concern. Rahneva would frequently clock 13-hour days training and then working at Winsport’s Canada Olympic Park to make ends meet, she had to find a way to buy her own world-class sled, and then even when she finally cracked Canada’s World Cup lineup this year, there were still $20,000 in team fees compared to the $10,000 in national carding assistance she received as a developing athlete.
“This year was exceptionally challenging,” notes Rahneva, who was delighted and relieved to get a February call from the Canadian Athletes Now Fund. “They said, ‘We’d like to support you. Your team fees are insane, but you’re doing really well and we’d like you to keep going.’
“Up until then, the financial stress was big. I didn’t know how I could cover the $11,000 that I still owed.”
Rahneva’s situation was created in part due to her sport’s Own The Podium funding cuts, and in part due to the Canadian women’s skeleton team’s depth. It wasn’t until this season – Rahneva’s fifth – that she managed to win a spot amongst the top group.
“In retrospect, I’m glad it took me so long to get here,” signals the 28-year-old. “The level of competition within Canada is so large that as an athlete coming up the ranks, once you hit the world stage, you’re ready. You’ve competed with some of the best athletes in the world already, within your country.”
Mom’s cancer battle ‘makes my obstacles look very small’
Last season provided another major hurdle. Rahneva had been coming off an exceptional 2014-15 campaign where she’d won the North American developmental circuit’s overall title and was poised to transition to the global stage.
But around the time of the Canadian Championships, Rahneva’s mother – who’d been battling cancer for about a year – had a big health scare. Rahneva missed earning a spot on the 2015-16 World Cup team at the selections, then went straight home and took a “much-needed” step back from sport to be with family.
“It puts everything back into perspective,” highlights Rahneva, who draws inspiration from her parents whenever she feels down.
“Any challenge that I’m going through, I know my parents have handled challenges 100 times bigger,” she explains. “It kind of makes my obstacles look very small and makes me work through them.”
The 2016-17 campaign has been the season Rahneva was waiting for, and more. She was “ecstatic” to set a new track start record and finish 5th in her December World Cup debut at Whistler. Then it got even better at the next stop in Lake Placid, the track where her skeleton journey began.
“It was such a special trip,” recounts Rahneva, who routinely clocks the best or close to the best starts on the circuit. “My mom was there and I think she’d only seen me race one before, and she told me it scared the living jeebies out of her.
“I was nervous she wouldn’t be warm enough, but I bundled her up as much as I could.”
Rahneva kept an eye out for her mom on race day, but didn’t see her anywhere, which was precisely her mom’s plan.
“She’s participated in a lot of sport herself, so she knows not to be a distraction,” explains Rahneva, who laid down a bronze medal-winning time in just her second World Cup race. “But I saw her at the bottom, and it was just the best feeling in the world.”
The rookie has kept up the pace since then, winning another bronze in Winterberg, Germany (behind Canadian teammate Elisabeth Vathje in 1st), a silver in Igls, Austria, and a historic gold at the sport’s birthplace in St. Moritz, Switzerland – the circuit’s only natural ice track, carved out of the snow annually.
“It is the smoothest, longest, quietest ride ever. It’s just a magical place,” details Rahneva. “I think St. Moritz and I clicked from the get-go. I really enjoy it there.”
Dedicating her performance to her recently-deceased grandmother, Rahneva was utterly dominant against the world’s best in St. Moritz. Her 1.83-second advantage over the 2nd-place athlete was the largest margin of victory recorded in at least the past decade, and perhaps ever (the International Bobsleigh and Sketelon Federation only has digital records dating back 10 years, and in that time, only one other female athlete has even won by more than a full second).
“After the first run, I’d made a tiny mistake and I figured that must have cost me some time,” recounts Rahneva. “When I got down and the next-best athlete was 79 hundredths behind, I was a bit shocked. I knew I had a really solid run, but that’s kind of insane.
“For that second run, I was quite nervous. I’ve never sat in that top spot before, #1 after heat 1. I would go off last after everyone else has taken runs down.
“I was nervous, but I just refocused and regrouped, and thought about my mistake and how to correct that corner, and I went down and it was an even smoother and better ride.
“I got down and it was a second better than the next-best athlete, so combined it was almost 2 seconds. It was just crazy.”
The dominant performance sent out a signal loud and clear that Rahneva will be a contender for the podium, if not a favourite, come the 2018 Winter Olympics. The final stop of the World Cup season will be in PyeongChang from Mar. 13-19, providing most athletes’ first look at the Olympic track.
What Rahneva finds most encouraging about her performances was that she was able to find success on several tracks she’d never before raced on.
“No one has been to PyeongChang really,” underlines the 2017 World Championships 8th-place finisher. “It’s going to be who can learn the track the quickest, and be most consistent on a track that is not so familiar.”
With Rahneva in 4th, Vathje in 5th and Jane Channell 11th in the international rankings, Canada is well-position to be one of two countries (along with Germany) to receive three Olympic women’s skeleton entries, if they can maintain their ranking through to Jan. 14, 2018.
“This is the year that I’ve really shown myself – and surprised myself at the same time – that I am capable of being competitive on the World Cup circuit with the best in the world,” signals Rahneva, beyond proud to be part of such a strong Canadian contingent. “The Olympics are looking a little more promising and I’m feeling a little more confident with my ability to represent Canada well there.”
Never far from Rahneva’s mind are the family, friends and supporters who have made her emergence possible. Competing amongst the world’s best and travelling to resort towns across the globe has been thrill for Rahneva, who sends pictures and postcards to her mom from every stop.
“We’re kind of closer now, even with all this distance apart,” highlights Rahneva, who spends as much time as she can back home. “My mom isn’t able to do much, but she gets really excited when she gets my pictures and postcards, and when I tell her about the places I’ve visited. I’ve been to so many places already within the past 2-3 months. It’s kind of entertaining for her as well.”
After Rahneva bombs down an ice track (fearlessly like a 10-year-old Canadian kid on a toboggan hill), she’ll always give a grin and a “Hi Mom!” to the TV cameras – an Olympic contender who’s still a young girl having the time of her life.
“A heart, a wave, a kiss – I do what I can,” smiles Rahneva. “My mom doesn’t miss very many of my races, so I always say hello to her.
“I’m really grateful for where I’ve come from. It means a lot to me.”