Whistler, B.C.- When Alysia Rissling speeds down sliding tracks on the IBSF World Cup, and races for Canada at the Olympics, the screaming crowds, prying eyes, and grilling questions do not phase her. Although a bigger stage, it reminds her of playing at the U SPORTS National Championships, and with that, she is prepared.
Rissling, 32, transitioned to bobsleigh after finishing off a studded basketball career with the University of Alberta Pandas and is returning to the World Cup on Saturday for the first time in nearly two years after missing out on the 2019-20 season with an injury.
Rissling had several university athletic options, but with U of A being in her hometown of Edmonton and their offer of a dual scholarship for Track and Basketball, that is where she ended up.
While the dual scholarship was tantalizing at first, playing both sports proved a little too much, even for Rissling. One year, after making the U SPORTS National Championships with the basketball team, Rissling returned and began training for a track meet mere weeks ahead. “I immediately got injured,” she said.”It was an overuse injury that just got to me, and it needed surgery, and that’s when coaches told me I had to pick one or the other.”
She chose basketball, a sport that gave her a ton of memories and a sport that allowed her to create some great friendships along the way. “I should have gone to school for school, but I was there for those girls,” said the former forward, who not only enjoyed her teammates and her time in green and gold but also representing a school and athletics program that treated the women’s team as equals. “Being a female athlete, and knowing what I know now about how far inequality goes, I never felt that at U of A, they did a great job of promoting both sides of the sport.”
Entrenched in basketball, Rissling was away from the potential eyes of Bobsleigh recruiters- until she was working out at the same time that Bobsleigh Canada recruiters were testing track athletes to join their programs. Watching her former track teammates go through workouts and tests, she knew she could outdo them; the only issue? She would have to put her degree on hold and move to Calgary to pursue it. Rissling stuck with basketball, and finished off her U SPORTS career, but never forgot about bobsleigh, joining the sport after graduating.
“After basketball, I was completely broken and not really looking to be an athlete anymore, I finished my last season with seven stress fractures, and I took a year to apply to grad school, but when I did not get in, it was time to pursue being an athlete again.”
From U SPORTS to sliding
Although bobsleigh is an entirely different sport than basketball, many of the skills, lessons and routines are directly transferable. “I always have a Red Bull about half an hour before I compete, I listen to loud pump-up music on the way to the court or track, and I always get up in the morning and do a full mobility warmup,” said Rissling. “What I eat to fuel myself is a little different, but the routines I go through are pretty much the same.”
Developing routines and amassing experiences in university sport is something that is seen through many of the Canadian sliding teams. For Rissling, it is not surprising “Bobsleigh is a sport you don’t start until your adult, so all of us are strength and power athletes who come from those types of sports,” she said. Although basketball is not a very common one, her strengths showed as an all-around athlete made the switch doable, but making the switch from the track, football, and other directly transferable sports is more popular.
In 2017, Rissling piloted a sled to a World Cup podium for the first time in a test event for the Pyeongchang Olympics at the Alpensia track in South Korea. Her brakeman was none other than a fellow U SPORTS alumnus, Cynthia Appiah, a former track student-athlete at York University.
While the sports may be different, sliding offers former university athletes a way to continue competing, even if it is not in the same sport they have grown up playing.
An important season ahead
After missing last season with an injury, and with Canada not sending athletes over for the beginning of the 2020-21 schedule, Rissliing is faced with a crucial set of races in the back portion of the season. “There’s a rule called a 5-3-2, which means you need five races on three tracks within two years,” she said. “Because I didn’t race last year, I need those this year, so everything needs to go perfectly on this trip to Europe.”
While the 5-3-2 is critical to stay on the national team for any season, it holds even greater meaning heading into an Olympic year in 2022. If Rissling puts up the needed results, she will likely get the chance to race in her second Olympic games.
In Europe, her first race is scheduled for Saturday in Winterberg, Germany, and is her first race in nearly two years. With the pandemic still in full-swing, all nations have had different training regimes for athletes. While many Europeans have been on-ice and in the gym the whole time, Rissling and other Canadians have had to deal with various strict guidelines. “We have a very important job to do, and not having a gym for two weeks can be the difference between being on the podium and not.”
Despite not having been able to train to the extent she would have liked, just getting back on a different track is exciting for Rissling, as she returns to action for the first time in a long time. Canadian bobsleigh fans can watch her race in Winterberg for free on CBCsports.ca.
While Rissling is focusing on bobsleigh, she also has the future in mind- she wants to be in broadcasting. With that in the back of her mind, she and skeleton athlete Grace Dafoe are co-hosting KidSport Calgary’s “Face First Podcast” as ambassadors for the program. “I’m a big podcast fan, so I’ve wanted to start one, and this has been a great opportunity to get into, and we’ve had some incredible guests already.”
Cover Photo: IBSF