For most high-level athletes, reaching the summit of their chosen sport is the culmination of a lifetime of hard work, dedication and sacrifice.
In Ryan Sommer’s case, the process moved considerably faster.
Within six years, he went from being a complete novice – “I didn’t know anything about anything,” he said – with respect to the sport of bobsledding, to being a key member of Canada’s top national four-man sled.
Now, he’s headed to the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing with his eyes on a gold medal.
Canada’s Olympic-bound bobsled teams were announced earlier this week, with Sommer – a 28-year-old Elgin Park Secondary graduate who was born and raised on the Semiahmoo Peninsula before moving to Alberta for university – being named to the Canada 1 sled, alongside pilot Justin Kripps – who won gold in the two-man bobsled at Pyeongchang in 2018 – Ben Coakwell and Cam Stones.
Reached in Germany, where the team has been based for months as they compete on the World Cup circuit, Sommer said the fact that he’s just weeks away from his Olympic debut has not sunk in just yet.
“It’s been really exciting, and this year has just been crazy with COVID and everything, so when the team announcement happened the other day, it really was just a dream come true,” he said.
“I think once I get to the Olympic village, and get all the Team Canada gear… that’s when it’ll sink in for me a little bit more that I’m actually at the Olympics.”
Competing in bobsled at any level – let alone the international stage – is not something that Sommer ever considered until he took up the sport six years ago, almost on a lark.
As a youngster, he played mainly on hockey and rugby, and in high school he focused on track and field – he was a member of Ocean Athletics – where he specialized in shot put and discus. In fact, he was good enough at track’s throwing events that he chose to attend the University of Lethbridge after graduating from Elgin Park, because the Alberta city was also home to a national track-and-field training centre.
For years, he figured if the Olympics were in the cards, it would be the summer event, rather than the winter edition of the Games.
“I got really invested in trying to make the national team,” he said.
After five years in Lethbridge, however, Sommer decided to become a firefighter – fighting forest fires, specifically. In 2015, he spent the summer working in Northern Alberta, and he enjoyed it so much, he returned in 2016.
“This is when the story gets a bit more bizarre,” Sommer warned, with a laugh, as he discussed his path to the Olympics.
During that second summer, he and his coworkers were watching the 2016 Summer Olympics from their fire base, when the discussion turned to the various Olympic events, and specifically, what ones each firefighter might be able to do.
“We were just kind of joking around, and I said that I didn’t think I’d ever go for track and field, but I said I knew a thrower who later got into bobsled, and… I thought that would be pretty cool,” he explained.
“It’s something I said I could see myself getting into. It became kind of a running joke up there, but then I started looking into it, and I found that there was an open recruitment camp in Richmond that happened to line up with our days off.”
From there, Sommer and three of his firefighting buddies drove from northern Alberta all the way to Richmond, where the camp was being held. Sommer said his results were “pretty average” but he enjoyed the experience nonetheless.
Awhile later, with plans in place already to move to Calgary to continue his education, he was invited to train at the Ice House track and training facility in Calgary, and he decided he would give it a shot.
“So I went, and I didn’t know anything about the sport, but on that first day, I was hooked,” he said. “Now, here I am almost six years later.”
— CBC Olympics (@CBCOlympics) January 20, 2022
Many athletes come to bobsled from other sports – Jesse Lumsden famously played in the Canadian Football League before switching to bobsled and competing at three Olympic Games – and Sommer said many of the skills he’s honed in track and field and rugby were transferable, notably explosiveness and overall strength.
Learning to sprint – on ice, no less – was something of a challenge, he noted.
“I never trained as a sprinter in my (time in track and field), so that was a very humbling experience,” he said.
“At that age, you kind of think you know everything, but it was humbling, coming from a sport you do know a lot about to one that you don’t, and you’re just trying to make a name for yourself in a new environment.”
He was soon paired up with Kripps, Coakwell and Stones, and the foursome has stayed together since. The men have “hundreds, if not thousands” of runs under their belts, both in practice and competition, and Sommer said that familiarity has given all four of them a calmness and confidence as they head to Beijing.
Kripps is also a previous Olympic gold-medallist, and the team has a slew of World Cup and world championship medals, too.
“I honestly think the hardest part is behind us. We have so many repetitions as a crew together… it feels like a lot of the work has been done, and everything we do is just automatic at this point,” Sommer said.
“We have confidence in Justin’s driving, and we’ve had really good results these last couple years, so that gives us massive confidence heading into these Games.
“We’re just going to go and execute and have a good time, and hopefully that results in us coming home with a medal.”
Despite strict COVID-19 protocols that will be in place in Beijing, Sommer said he’s not worried, and is instead looking forward to competing. And while there will be no fans on-site to watch him, he will have one supporter there in person – his fiancee, Blayre Turnbull, who is a member of Canada’s national women’s hockey team and will be competing at her second Olympics.
“It’s cool to be able to share it with someone,” Sommer said.
He’ll no doubt have plenty of support back home, too. Though his parents have since moved to the Okanagan, there were plenty of Peninsula residents who were excited when his name was announced as a member of the Olympic team.
On Friday morning, he noted that he’d already received a message of support from his friend and former rugby coach Adam Roberts – a longtime coach and both Bayside Rugby and Earl Marriott Secondary – while word quickly spread to his old track team, too.
“It’s absolutely outstanding,” said Ocean Athletics coach Maureen de St. Croix. “Anybody who makes the Olympics is an outstanding story, and when you know them it’s even more fun. Now when we watch bobsledding, we’ll have a personal interest.”
De St. Croix noted that Sommer was always something of a natural athlete, so even though she had not heard that he’d taken up the sport, she was not surprised he had found success at it.
“He’s always been a stellar athlete – he’s got good genetics and a real hard-working attitude – and I was just thrilled when I heard. It’s fantastic.”