Gold medalist Heather Moyse climbs highest Antarctica peak for good cause

HeatherNews

ALLAN MAKI
The Globe and Mail
Published Friday, Jan. 29, 2016

In bobsleigh circles, she’s affectionately known as The Freak. It’s a say-it-all nickname pinned on her by Calgary teammates who have watched her fly in from Toronto or Prince Edward Island, tear up the ice with the fastest start times; smile, shrug then fly back to the east assured a spot on Canada’s national bobsleigh team.

And all that happened in two days? Three, tops?

Freaky.

But this winter, the gilded life and fast times of Heather Moyse are changing in a way she never imagined. Instead of racing downhill on an icy track, the back-to-back Olympic gold medalist embarked on a thoroughly uphill challenge. Nothing was rushed, everything was measured. For 21 days this January, it was one steady foot in front of the other for 4,892 metres until she stood atop the highest peak at the bottom of the world, Mount Vinson in Antarctica.

Of all her achievements – the two Olympic titles with bobsleigh pilot Kaillie Humphries to the international victories she has celebrated as a member of the Canadian women’s rugby team – Moyse was thrilled to have scaled one of the world’s Seven Summits. Not only was it a charitable endeavour to raise money for the Canadian Armed Forces, it offered a personal perspective. When you’ve been to the mountaintop as an athlete, what happens when you realize your competitive career is winding down?

At 37, the PEI-born Toronto resident has acknowledged she won’t be part of the action when rugby sevens makes its Olympic debut this August in Rio.

As for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Moyse makes no promises. Instead, she likes to leave all her options in play, in case someone needs her help, her athleticism, her speed.

“It’s not that I’m holding anything back. I just have no idea if I’ll bobsleigh again,” she says, having returned from Antarctica with fresh material for her emerging career as a motivational speaker. “I like where my life is right now. I’m going in a direction knowing I’m adding value to the lives of other people because that’s what I feel is the best part of winning the gold medals … I can now help other people get to their podiums.”

Moyse has never been one to do things in a conventional manner. Strong with explosive power, she took her first bobsled ride five months before the Turin Olympics, where she and pilot Helen Upperton finished fourth. For Vancouver’s 2010 Olympics, Moyse and Humphries blocked out the pressure of racing in their homeland and finished first. Coming off surgery to repair a damaged hip, Moyse re-upped with Humphries for 2014 and won in Sochi, Russia.

Then in early 2015, investment money man Bill Webb offered to sponsor Moyse on the True Patriot Love Scotiabank Expedition to Mount Massif. It sounded like a big commitment to Moyse, who had a lot going on with speeches to deliver and places to be. Ultimately, she came to the conclusion she’d be “unauthentic” if she talked a big game but wasn’t eager enough to be a part of it. So she accepted the offer to climb the mountain with nine soldiers and 18 business executives who had each paid $50,000 for the ascent of a lifetime.

To best prepare, Moyse went for long walks several times a week wearing a backpack that weighed in at 34 kilograms. She even walked on an inclined treadmill to feel what it was going to be like as a mountaineer in search of one to climb.

After four flights all heading south, Moyse and the expedition arrived at base camp happy to see clear skies and plenty of sunshine. Everything was wonderful on the way up the mountain until they reached the summit, where swirling winds and thick clouds robbed them of any view. Most everyone took some photos then left.

There were emotional connections made on the climb and descent but they only surfaced when one of the guides told everyone to sit, look and listen for five minutes. During that time, the only thing anyone heard was the sound of the wind whipping past them.

“I thought, as a PE Islander, I knew what peace and quiet was,” Moyse says. “But there was nothing but the wind [in Antarctica]. It made the whole experience seem surreal.”

Those who know her say they wouldn’t be surprised if she moved onto the next phase of her life.