Written by: Matt Johnson for Sask Sport
Photo credit: International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation
Ben Coakwell has an interesting way of explaining travelling in a bobsled going 150 km/h down a track.
“It’s like if you’re inside a tin garbage can rolling down a hill, but that hill was also taking off in an airplane, so you’d get that feeling of take-off, but also the bumps while rolling down a hill,” he said. “Every time a new guy comes out. I want to watch. I want to be at the top or the bottom and see what the reaction is going to be. It’s insanity.”
The Moose Jaw product is eager to attend his third Olympic Games as a member of Bobsleigh Canada, a journey assisted by the Saskatchewan Program for Athletic Excellence, a grant that is supported by Sask Lotteries. Coakwell stars as the brakeman on Justin Kripps four-man bobsled team, which is in the midst of the 2021-22 Bobsleigh World Cup. Fresh off a bronze-medal finish at an event in Winterbeg, Germany, Coakwell is in good shape to qualify.
But like many in the sport, when he was growing up bobsledding wasn’t on his radar.
Coakwell’s listing of Bo Jackson —the only professional athlete to be named an All-Star in the MLB and NFL— as his favourite athlete explains a lot. First, Coakwell was a hockey player, then a football player. He joined the University of Saskatchewan Huskies football team in 2005 as a running back and also starred on the Huskies track and field team as a sprinter. It was that combination that helped him be ultimately introduced to bobsledding.
“You need to be fast, but you also need to be heavy. And that’s not two things that really go hand-in-hand in the athletic world very often,” he noted.
But Coakwell is an exception. He was found thanks to the presence of stats, measurables, newspaper articles and highlights, by a recruiter with Bobsleigh Canada. It is a much different process now, said Coakwell, where aspiring bobsledders attend camps or programming like RBC Training Ground to show their stuff.
Coakwell’s introduction to bobsleigh, was still with two years of eligibility remaining as a Huskie athlete, after he was emailed by the recruiter to let him know was coming out to a track and field meet in Saskatoon. After exhausting his two remaining years of eligibility with the Huskies and leading the football team in rushing yards in both 2010 and 2011 and winning sprinting medals at the Canada West championship, it was time for him to turn his attention from University sport to the Olympic Games.
“This was always something that I was interested in. I went to Calgary and I pushed in their indoor facility and it’s something that I just love.”
From the moment he tried it he was hooked.
“It’s just a crazy expression of explosive power. It’s something that I can’t explain to people and everybody gets it as soon as they try it. You get wrapped up in it and it’s hard to get out of it.”
At the age of 34, Coakwell expects this to be his last Olympic Games. While he has interest in coaching after wrapping up his career — first he has some unfinished business. Expectations follow when you’ve been a part of a program for 10-plus years.
The reason I’ve worked so hard at this is because I am a representation of the neighbourhood I grew up in and a representation of the people that taught me and the sports that I played in the communities in Moose Jaw and in Saskatoon.Ben Coakwell, who is one of two Moose Javians working toward a spot in Beijing
“Things are looking really good for us,” said Coakwell. “There’s a lot of scenarios that we’ve come across that we’ve gained wisdom from and we’ve won a lot of medals because of that. The momentum is definitely on our side. Our team has been together for the last four years, we haven’t had any changes, we’ve been solid and that’s been a big reason for our success.”
Their success as a team is evident — four gold, one silver and five bronze-medals at World Cup events since 2019 and as recently as Dec. 11. The group was named the Team of the Year at the 2019 Canadian Sport Awards. After a disappointing 29th place finish in his Olympic debut at the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi that involved an on-track crash, Coakwell’s team finished 12th in 2014 in Pyeongchang. He minces no words about what his team’s expectations are for when the best in the world gather again in Beijing.
“Our goal is to win the Olympics and that’s not a secret. We don’t pretend to say that it’s not,” said Coakwell. “We feel like we can win and we’re going to do everything we can to win. We definitely have the ability to do it. It’s just a matter of showing up on the day, which is a huge thing at the Games, because it’s the Games.”
Coakwell understands what his presence at the Games means for his hometown of Moose and the province.
“That’s why we do it, that’s why I do it,” said Coakwell, who is one of two Moose Javians working toward a spot in Beijing. The reason I’ve worked so hard at this is because I am a representation of the neighbourhood I grew up in and a representation of the people that taught me and the sports that I played in the communities in Moose Jaw and in Saskatoon.”
“When Canadians watch the Olympics, there’s so many emotional attachments to sport, and I think that’s a big part of it because they’re watching people that grew up in their neighbourhoods and their towns. That’s the reason we want success. It’s not a personal thing as much as it’s a thing that you want to achieve to share with others.”