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Written By: Brock Smith
From 80 minutes to 49 seconds.
Cam Stones’ unorthodox, expedited path from elite-level rugby player to Olympic bobsledder may not seem like the most natural transition.
From the outside looking in, the juxtapositions between the sports seem to indicate that the two have little in common: going from grass to ice, from rucks and mauls to precise technical movements planned to the nth degree, from waging war in the scrum to hurtling down an frozen chute at breakneck speeds (upwards of 150 km/h)… with so many inherent differences, how could the two sports draw from the same athlete pool?
But take it from the 26-year-old native of Whitby, Ontario – there’s more in common between the sports than meets the eye.
Despite his unconventional route to the sled, it’s those under-the-surface commonalities that landed the former rugby standout on Nick Poloniato’s crew for the four-man competition at the 2018 Pyeongchang Games.
And, as Stones tells everyone who asks, “the bobsledder in me doesn’t exist without the rugby player existing first.”
When it came to rugby, Stones was a natural from the moment he first stepped on the pitch as a 14-year-old at Sinclair Secondary School.
A two-time Ontario University Athletics all-star in rugby, the six-foot-three-inch, 238-pound Stones was an bruising loose forward for the McMaster Marauders. He was selected for the national team at the under-17 level before representing Canada in consecutive years at the IRB Junior World Trophy competitions as an under-20 athlete in 2011 and 2012.
After earning perennial roster spots on junior provincial teams, he became a mainstay within the Ontario Blues senior provincial program in his early 20s, and based on his career trajectory, was poised to become a national team regular.
But after years of tenacious play, injuries finally caught up with Stones. A broken humerus sustained in his last year at McMaster meant he was left with what would end up being a career-altering decision – get the surgery required to repair the bone in his upper arm in order to continue playing rugby, or take a step back to try something different?
Stones admits that if the injury had occurred a year or two earlier, he wouldn’t have thought twice about going under the knife.
But something had recently caught his eye that shifted his thinking.
“Every year, when we were training in the off-season at McMaster, there’d be quite a few guys from the Canadian bobsled team training in the same facility as us,” says Stones. “I always really respected the way that they trained, and I took an immediate liking to the sport. At first sight, it was challenging in all the right areas - how fast I could get, and how strong I could get. I knew that playing rugby, I was never going to get the opportunity to find out.”
It was this fascination for a new sport, as well as discussions with Canadian bobsledders – including talks with fellow McMaster grad and crossover athlete Jesse Lumsden – that sealed Stones’ fate. After confirming with the Marauders’ strength and conditioning coaches that he had the ideal makeup to become a crossover athlete, Stones made his decision - he would let his injury heal on its own, and give bobsledding a go.
He attended his first scouting combine in November 2014 as a 22-year-old, and scored well. So well, in fact, that national recruiters insisted that he make his international bobsleigh debut just two months later in a North American Cup race in Lake Placid.
Talk about baptism by fire.
“I’d had no exposure to the sport at that point, and then just based on being in the right place at the right time at the November combine, I tested well enough,” says Stones. “They invited me to come down and push for one of the pilots who was going down there, because they needed a brakeman. I ended up loving the experience. The speed, the power… I was hooked.”
With his combine scores routinely improving throughout 2015, the newly-graduated Stones decided to move to Alberta to pursue the sport full-time – all this coming before he had even made the national team.
“I just packed my bags, threw everything into a truck, and drove out to Calgary not really knowing where it was going to take me,” Stones laughs. “It was perfect timing to throw myself into the sport.”
The decision quickly paid dividends, with Stones rocketing up Canada’s depth chart in his debut season with the program.
He returned to the North American Cup circuit to start the 2015-16 season before making his World Cup debut in January 2016 as a member of Chris Spring’s four-man crew. He competed in a World Cup two-man race for the first time in February 2016 with pilot Nick Poloniato, with his world championship debut coming later in the year.
Stones moved to the World Cup circuit full-time in 2016-17 and earned his first medal, a four-man bronze, in Lake Placid. Primarily racing in the four-man event with both Spring and Poloniato, Stones was part of three top-10 finishes during the 2017-18 World Cup season.
Despite still being relatively new to the sport, his track record spoke for itself. Stones was Olympic-calibre, but he wasn’t sure if he’d be heading to Pyeongchang until just two weeks before the Games were set to commence. Fourteen days ahead of the Games’ opening ceremonies, he experienced the joy he was looking for – he found out his Olympic dream was coming true.
“I’d been cautiously optimistic I’d be named to the team, but I tried to keep it realistic that anything could happen, so I wasn’t counting on anything,” recalls Stones. “My family booked their trips to Korea well in advance of the Games, and no one knew if we were going to end up going, so it was a pretty stressful time waiting to see if I’d be selected.”
Stones admits that his disbelief at becoming a Canadian Olympian didn’t dissipate until his first run down the track.
“Words don’t (and can’t) ever adequately describe the experience,” says Stones. “It really hit me moments before my first run, just how much it meant to wear the maple leaf. Every opportunity I’ve had to wear the Canadian jersey or Canadian uniform, even back to my under-17 debut with Rugby Canada, has been so special to me.”
“When you go through opening ceremonies, that’s when I realized just how big this experience was, and that I had a nation of millions back home giving me their unwavering support. It was a humbling and profound honour.”
Stones and his teammates ended up finishing 12th at the Olympic Games. The brakeman was pleased with the performance, especially when you factor in how many sleds Team Poloniato leapfrogged to get to that position.
“Based on where we started [21st position], to climb up nine spots was awesome. We’re happy with how we pushed. The team had been put together just before the Games, but we all felt very confident in our abilities, and we all trusted each other. I think we definitely over-achieved from what people were expecting of us.
“Nick [Poloniato] and I have been really good friends for a while. He’s the one who, in my first year, took a flyer on me and said ‘Yeah, I’ll take that guy on my team.’ Really, based on nothing. He met me down at Lake Placid in 2015 when I was starting my bobsled career, and he saw potential in me, and he’s a large reason as to why I was able to be successful early in my career. I was so proud to be racing with him at the Olympics, because he gave this former rugby player his shot.”
So what do rugby and bobsleigh actually have in common?
Coming from someone who has played both sports at the highest level, there are a couple of main areas.
Firstly, it’s the power.
“Rugby and bobsled are such explosive power sports, with the big difference that rugby requires endurance, while bobsleigh requires very little,” chuckles Stones. “Bobsleigh likes to recruit people from rugby and football, people who are used to explosive movements. Crossover athletes are generally bigger, stronger, and faster than average athletes.”
Secondly – and perhaps more importantly – it’s the camaraderie.
“The team aspect of rugby is so important. How many times have we seen teams that are full of studs that don’t work well together, and they under-achieve? The same thing happens in bobsled, where you can have four incredible athletes on a sled, but if there’s no teamwork, if there’s no cohesion, and if the guys don’t want to do it for each other, then you’re not going to get the results.
“Guys who come from team sports like football and rugby seem to integrate better than guys who come from individual sports. And that’s not to say that guys from individual sports aren’t capable of doing it, but it just seems that guys can roll with the punches a lot better if they have team experience. Playing rugby provided me with something to give to my crew, and reflecting back, there’s no way I would have risen through the ranks of bobsleigh without playing rugby first.”
Now that the Olympics have wrapped up, Stones is taking some time off before heading back to training.
During his downtime, he’s enjoyed being able to watch some of his former teammates suit up for Canada at the Americas Rugby Championship and the Ontario Arrows in the team’s inaugural season.
“I’m constantly checking what’s going on in the rugby community,” says Stones. “I’ve played with most of those guys over the years, and I want to see them do well, and they’ve all been really supportive of what I’ve been doing. I went to see the Ontario Blues play last summer in Calgary, and it was really cool to catch up with the guys. They may have been trying to convince me to come back to rugby after the bobsled was finished, which isn’t entirely out of the question.”
For now, Stones is focusing on returning to bobsled for the 2020 Games in Tokyo.
But after that? Well, a return to pitch may not be that far off…
“I would love to slap on a pair of rugby boots. I might check in to see if I can play a club game at my home club in Ajax. The rugby community is really unique in that you can kind of be distanced from it, at least physically, for as long as I have been, but whenever I go back to visit the Wanderers, it’s like I never left.
“Club rugby is so supportive, it’s unlike anything else I’ve experienced in sports. The messages I received from the rugby community while in Korea were so great, and it just reinforced that I want to come back to rugby later on. I want to stay involved in whatever capacity I can, to give back to the game that gave so much to me.”