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Toronto-born bobsledder ready for 2022 Beijing Olympics

Cynthia Appiah says she faced the biggest setback of her athletic career at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympic Games in South Korea.

After years of hard work and sacrifice, the Toronto athlete was told she’d be just an alternate on the Canadian women’s bobsleigh team. 

Appiah says she was ready to quit. But instead she pressed on. 

“You have to put in 100 per cent to be able to achieve your goals,” she told CBC News. “When you’re striving for the Olympics, you can’t be a part-time athlete.”

Now, Appiah’s gearing up for the Winter Games in Beijing and, this time, she’ll be in the driver’s seat. In the past four years, she’s moved up from her role as a brakewoman to become a pilot for the team. And just last month she claimed the silver medal in the women’s monobob at the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation World Cup. 

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Appiah credits her athleticism and drive to her family. She is pictured here as a child, with her mother, Mary, father, James, and brother, Moses. (Submitted by the Appiah family)

Appiah, 31, credits her athleticism and drive to her family. 

Born to Ghanaian immigrants, Appiah and her siblings grew up in community housing in Toronto. 

Family time meant gathering together to watch Jeopardy!, a highly-competitive experience in the Appiah household. 

“It would get cut-throat,” Appiah said. “I’m not going to lie. Sometimes I jump the gun and I answer the question before it’s been fully read by the host and my sisters or my brother will get furious with me.”

Appiah says her parents are her biggest cheerleaders and that they have always inspired her to go after the things she wants in life. 

“They always made it known that they wanted us to … put our best effort into everything that we did,” she said. “I just see how hard they’ve worked to be able to give us what we needed in life. And for that, I’m very grateful.”

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Appiah, right, and her sister Martha, left. Appiah says Martha and their other sister are her biggest fans. (Submitted by the Appiah family)

“Caring, smart and resilient” are words Martha Appiah uses to describe her Olympian older sister. 

“She’s always been the person who tries anything, always wants to push herself, pushes us as well to do our best” Martha said. 

Martha says her sister inspires her; being a Black woman in a leadership position on the Canadian bobsleigh scene. 

That’s not an achievement that Appiah takes lightly. 

“Being a Black athlete in a winter sport, you do come across, unfortunately, some negative stereotypes about your abilities,” Appiah said. “And I find that it just makes it that much more sweeter when I am successful.”

Black athletes have traditionally been sidelined into the brakemen and crew roles in bobsleigh, she said. And she’s happy to see a change occurring and to be a part of that change. 

Graham Richardson, the team manager and technical driver coach for Bobsleigh Canada, says Appiah is more prepared than ever to compete at the Olympic level. 

“She has turned herself into an incredibly strong, physically very strong athlete and, over the last four years, has also become incredibly mentally strong as well,” he said. 

He said Appiah’s setback at the 2018 Winter Games was a major motivator for her. 

“She turned that disappointment into a positive energy and a resolute determination to push forward,” he said.

As Appiah looks forward to Beijing 2022 and the road she’s taken to get there, she has some advice to those athletes who hope to follow in her footsteps. 

“It’s going to be difficult,” she said.

“But know that your determination and the tenacity that you have and the passion that you have within yourself is what’s going to help you to become stronger, to become better and to become the best… You will get there.”

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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