BARRHEAD - Melissa Lotholz is back and ready to compete at the bobsleigh World Cup level.
If one has any doubt, all one needs to do is look at the success the County of Barrhead native has wracked up on the condensed six-week North American Cup (NAC) circuit this season since returning to the sport following a one-year hiatus.
"The first half of the season went super well," Lotholz told the Barrhead Leader on Jan. 25 from the security area of the Edmonton International Airport via telephone just before boarding a plane to Germany.
In the six two-women bobsleigh events, Lotholz has only missed the podium once, in the fourth race of the season in Whistler in early December, where she finished fifth. Her other finishes include two first-place finishes, the first in Whistler in early December, while her other victory was in the NAC last race, two weeks later in Park City, Utah, and three silver medal finishes.
Over the same period, Lotholz also competed in the solo mono bob event, finishing with three first-place finishes, two silver, and one third-place finish. Her performances place her on the top of the NAC point rankings in both events going into the midseason break, which resumes in March.
The NAC is a step below and is the feeder or farm team for the World Cup circuit.
Upon her return, she was bumped down to the NAC circuit because Canada lost one of their traditional three World Cup slots for a series of reasons, including funding issues and athlete retirements, resulting in the team not having enough World Cup points for the third sled.
"It was great to get back into the bobsled space and compete on tracks where I haven't been in a while in North America," she said.
Lotholz said she appreciated her time in the NAC, noting that it gave her front-seat time that she might not have gotten on the senior circuit.
"The extra time and competition experience is critical with a brand new brakewoman that hasn't competed before," she said.
This season, Lotholz was paired with Alexandra (Alex) Klein, a 29-year-old Kitchener, Ont native who comes to the sport following a professional basketball career in Europe cut short by an auto-immune disease.
But, as successful as she has been on the North American circuit, Lotholz said she is excited to make her return to Europe and an eventual return to the senior circuit.
However, before she can do that, Lotholz and Klein must first compete in a Europe Cup race in Innsbruck, Austria, on Feb. 2.
"That should give [Canada] more than enough points to qualify a third sledge for the World Championships [in Winterberg, Germany, in late February and early March]," she said.
In between the two events, the Canadian Bobsleigh contingent has scheduled a mini-training camp to prepare for the World Championships.
The races will be streamed on the CBC website.
Lotholz said she is most appreciative of the support and sponsorship she has received from local businesses and residents.
She added during her hiatus, the Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton budget, which was never rich, has been slashed, meaning that athletes like herself have to self-finance and without the help of sponsors such as Kardia, Peace Hills Insurance, Fountain Tire, Stephani Motors, MNP, Comfort Corner and 111st Skate Sharpening, she wouldn't have been able to return.
It is also the reason that she and Klein decided to launch their own clothing line, Eh Team Apparel (ehteamapparel.com), with 100 per cent of the proceeds going to help fund elite Canadian athletes.
"It first started out as a T-shirt fundraiser to offset costs this year," she said, pattering it after a similar effort she and 15 other Canadian elite athletes did about five years ago.
In 2017, the athletes, headed by bobsledder Jesse Lumsden, teamed up with Canadian sports cartoonist Dave Elston to create the "High-Performance Herd," featuring various caricatures of moose representing each of the participating athletes.
But Lotholz said the idea quickly expanded.
"[Funding] is a problem for a lot of athletes, so I started thinking about how we could build a platform that can help support other Canadian athletes," she said. "I hope it will be a legacy project that will continue to help athletes long after I retire."
But Lotholz said that is a ways off, and she is focussing first on the Eurocup and helping Canada qualify a third sled for the World Championships and, for the longer term, at returning to the senior circuit next year permanently as a pilot on the senior circuit on the run-up to qualifying for the Olympics in 2026 and being a medal threat.
At 31 years old, Lotholz, a two-time Olympian, is one of the "old women" on the Canadian Bobsleigh squad.
Her bobsleigh journey began in January 2014 when she attended a dryland identification camp.
During the camp, the former University of Alberta track star, specializing in 60 metres and the 4x100-metre relay events, put up some impressive times that got the attention of the national team coaching staff.
Lotholz then made a concerted run at making the Canadian National Bobsleigh Team. She did, and for the better part of four seasons, she would compete as a brakeman, primarily for Canadian pilot Kaillie Humphries. She accumulated 17 World Cup medals, including two World Championship silver medals.
For the Pyeongchang 2018 Olympics in South Korea, she was paired with fellow Albertan and UofA alum pilot Christine de Bruin. The duo slid to a seventh-place finish.
After the South Korea Olympics, Lotholz transitioned to the front seat to pilot and competed in the Beijing Winter Olympics 2022, where she finished 12th with brakeman Sara Villani.