Cynthia Appiah was watching the Toronto Maple Leafs at Scotiabank Arena in February when the conversation between her and Canadian record holder Sarah Mitton shifted to a potential return to shot put.
Mitton was disappointed Appiah didn’t attend a planned summer of throw training a year ago after she finished a full bobsled/monobob season.
“It was almost a guilt trip,” Appiah recalled in an interview with CBC Sports. “I felt I had to come back because I had been talking about it for so many years.”
Appiah followed through in April after finishing third in the overall World Cup monobob standings, collecting a silver and four bronze medals over eight races. She also earned three silver medals in two-women bobsleigh.
Appiah has long admired the athletic ability of Welsh shot putter Adelé Nicoll, an alternate member of the Great Britain bobsleigh team at the Beijing Olympics in 2022 before she returned to win shot put gold at her national championship last June. The 26-year-old also placed eighth at the Commonwealth Games.
The difference between really good and champion is all between the ears.— Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton driving coach Lyndon Rush
“I thought if she’s capable of doing [both sports] then certainly I can too,” said Appiah, who turned 33 on May 15. “She’s much more capable in throwing than I am right now but seeing her do it got [me thinking].”
Appiah’s decision put a smile on the face of Lyndon Rush, the Olympic bobsled bronze medallist-turned Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton driving coach, who suggested for two years the 2020 Olympian find an off-season sport to work on her mental game.
“The difference between really good and champion is all between the ears,” Rush, who has worked closely with Appiah the past two seasons, told CBC Sports. “If she ever wants to be a champion, she needs to be able to pull out that [elite] performance on-demand. Anybody who has competed at the highest level knows how hard it is.”
In February, Appiah endured two crash-filled training weeks ahead of her final monobob competitions of the season.
The Toronto resident was humbled by the experience and subsequently didn’t place expectations on her racing. She was more concerned about not crashing and performing well.
‘Good pilots put crashes behind them’
Appiah went to work on Feb. 11, posting the fastest time in the second of two runs at 54.63 seconds and climbed three spots for a women’s bronze medal in Igls, Austria. A week later in Sigulda, Latvia, Appiah was quick off the start in both runs but had difficulty perfecting the bottom portion of the track on the way to another bronze in the final World Cup race of the season.
WATCH l Appiah earns monobob bronze in World Cup season finale:
A more underdeveloped version of Appiah would have shut down emotionally after crashes during the first run on back-to-back training days.
“That can cripple anyone, mentally,” said Appiah. “The old me would have had a hard time seeing the possibility to compete and do well. [But] the good pilots [drivers] are able to put crashes or mistakes behind [them] because you still have a job to do. It’s not over until it’s actually over.”
Added Rush: “I think when she saw she was more process-oriented, she did better. I want her to continue the path where she’s humble, hungry, executes the [race plan] and doesn’t look at the clock when he crosses the finish line.
“I’m a big fan of her working on her mental game until we get on ice in October.”
Appiah last competed in athletics in 2014, throwing 14.21 metres in her final shot put competition that summer at the Toronto Asian Community Games and 53.93 in the hammer throw at another Toronto event.
I didn’t have my best competition, but I also didn’t sweat it because my mentality through all of this is to have fun.— Cynthia Appiah
After only four workouts this year, she threw the shot 14.10 for the win at Toronto’s York University, where Appiah was a student-athlete through her 2012-13 senior season and the school’s female athlete of the year.
She didn’t feel great about her first two throws.
“I reminded myself I had six [attempts] so I can’t beat myself up too hard,” recalled Appiah, who trains three days a week in shot put and hammer throw around five days of bobsleigh workouts in the off-season. “I didn’t have my best competition, but I also didn’t sweat it because my mentality through all of this is to have fun.”
‘She’s thinking the right things’
Those words were music to Rush’s ears.
“She’s thinking the right things. I’m glad and excited to see where this goes for her,” he said from his home in Sylvan Lake, Alta., adding Appiah will become a better athlete making her body do things it isn’t used to.
The winning throw also met the 14.00 automatic qualifying standard for the women’s event at the July 27-30 Canadian track and field championships in Langley, B.C., where Appiah hopes for a top-six finish — equivalent to medal position in bobsleigh — before shutting down her season.
On Sunday, she will compete in shot put at the Bob Vigars Classic in London, Ont.
Rich Parkinson, who coaches Mitton and Appiah and guided the latter through her university days, said her speed and power have improved over the years.
“We don’t know how far she could throw if she dedicated herself [full-time]. She’s also in her 30s and the door is kind of closing, but she could be the outlier,” he said of Appiah, a three-time silver medallist at the CIS (now U Sports) championships. “It’s incredible what physical condition she’s in.”
A self-proclaimed perfectionist, Appiah craved immediate success upon her return to throwing, but is approaching the sport with a different mindset.
“I’m very successful in bobsleigh,” she began, “but it took time to get to that point.”
Appiah began her career as a brakewoman and won three straight gold medals with Christine de Bruin to open the 2015-16 North American Cup campaign.
After switching to the two-women event on the World Cup circuit in late 2017, Appiah won gold in her first race in Whistler, B.C., with Olympic gold medallist Kallie Humphries. But through it all, Rush noted, Appiah was a victim of her own success.
“She was too good for her own good,” he said. “She didn’t build the fundamentals well, especially as a pilot [starting in 2018]. She didn’t know how to approach a run. She was outstarting girls in monobob and beating them, even though she wasn’t driving good.
“As the years have gone, she’s figuring out how to make up time here and there. She’s finally learning how to analyze her run, based on the facts of the run instead of the result.”
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.
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