If not for an injury in his second season with the Guelph Gryphons football team, former defensive back Orion Edwards might not be pursuing a dream of competing in the Winter Olympics.
Edwards, who turned 26 this month, is a member of the Canadian national bobsled team’s development squad.
“The seed was planted in 2016, actually, when I tore my ACL,” he said during a talk on Zoom.
“My sister’s a nurse so she came to Guelph. I had my surgery in Guelph at the hospital, Guelph General, and she came and helped me out and made sure everything was good in the recovery process. The day of the surgery after I woke up from surgery, a couple of hours later we watched Cool Runnings together on Netflix while eating dinner and just hanging out that night. I had short locks at that time and Sanka, one of the main characters, had short locks as well. She looked at Sanka and looked at me and said ‘Well, your hair’s the same length’ and I was like ‘OK.’ ‘Well, you should do bobsled.’ And I was like ‘That’s a weird deduction.’”
Of course that wasn’t the only reason.
“No, no, not just that,” his sister said to him. “I think you’re fast and powerful and strong and I think that’s what you need to be a great bobsledder.”
The seed sat dormant for a couple of years until after he finished his time with the Gryphons, winning the Ted Wildman Memorial Trophy, an award that takes into consideration the player’s athletics, academics and community service.
After graduating from the University of Guelph, Edwards moved to Seattle.
“I was working for Athletes in Action, which I was part of in Guelph, and I was with Athletes in Action at the University of Washington and Seattle Pacific University,” he said. “I was a campus missionary which was a great experience. Some of the athletes I worked with there I still talk to now.”
But Edwards soon discovered he couldn’t quit competitive sports cold turkey.
“I was still working out and I felt like I still had a lot of athletic potential so let’s see what else I can do with it before it’s too late,” he said.
Another visit from his sister and another conversation about bobsledding turned Edwards into a winter athlete, something that no one at the U of G would have foreseen.
“I don’t think I would’ve struck myself as a guy who would be a winter athlete if you asked me this about five years ago,” he said. “I’m actually born in the winter, but I’ve never really been a big wintertime fan. I think snow is beautiful and stuff like that, but I thrive in the summer. I like summer weather a lot.”
With his mind made up on giving bobsledding a shot, Edwards reached out to Neil Lumsden, the former running backs coach for the Gryphons whose son Jesse had been on the national bobsledding team. Lumsden put Edwards in touch with Morgan Alexander, the high performance manager of Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton (BCS) and Edwards’ journey to becoming a bobsledder was started.
He had to attend a BCS combine where the biggest thing would be to run a 30-metre sprint in 3.90 seconds.
“I actually did (the combine) in Guelph in July of 2019,” he said. “I ran the standard and if you run the standard, you get invited to the national team tryouts in Calgary. I went there last year in October. You have to do the combine tests again, plus on top of a power clean and a bench press test, you have a push test.”
The weightlifting and the running were things Edwards had done with the Gryphons. But a push test?
“To be honest with you, my push testing my first year was absolutely horrible,” he said. “Essentially what happened is that we had our combine testing around October 2 or 3 and then on about the fifth or sixth, we had some learn-how-to-push camps – three or four days of it. And then we had push testing the week after that. You’re push testing with everybody there, the top-level guys who are past Olympians like Ben Coakwell and Cam Stones and Justin Kripps and all those guys.
“I’m pushing super slow as I’m still learning and all that. That first push testing was hard, but I’ve improved a lot from last year to this year.”
Now Edwards does both two-man and four-man bobsled with the development team and as the brakeman, he’s the guy at the very back of the sled, the last to load.
His first actual run down a track came last year and it wasn’t in Canada.
“My first run down the hill, we went from a lower start – corner 3. It was in Lake Placid, N.Y., and our pilot was Pat Norton,” Edwards said. “I remember in the truck going up to the top of the hill he asked me how I was feeling and I said that I was a little nervous, but I thought it was going to be fun and I thought it was going to be cool.”
Another one of the crew asked him what he’d do if he got scared and decided he didn’t want to do it. He had a reply ready.
“I’m too deep in the cut, meaning that I’d already put a lot of work and time and a lot of energy and even some finances behind it to get to where I am,” he said.
“My first run down, it was fun. There’s no feeling like it. There’s a lot of turns, twisty and pressure. Feeling G force for the first time was different as well. It’s fast. Sometimes it can be a little scary, but it’s fast and it’s fun. It’s a ride. It’s a very thrilling adrenaline rush.”
Now he’s on a holiday break. The Canadian team didn’t participate in the 2020 portion of the 2020-21 World Cup season, but is expected to travel to Europe to join the tour early in January. Edwards, though, will be among those who won’t be going.
“I decided to opt out of the second half,” he said. “I did have the option to go, but I didn’t feel that for me personally it would be the best option for me to go to Germany at this time.”
That decision came as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and with a thought of his mother and grandmother. He lives with them when he’s in Ontario and he didn’t want to jeopardize their health and he’s not the only member of the squad to turn the offer down.”
While training this season in Calgary and Whistler, B.C., the Canadian team adhered to COVID-19 protocols. It was split into several nodes of up to 10 athletes and two coaches and those groups stayed together throughout the training period.
“Hopefully in the future I’ll get to go overseas,” Edwards said.
He will likely get to compete in North American Cup events early in 2021, a series he raced in during the 2019-20 season. In North American Cup four-man events at Lake Placid and Park City, Utah, last season, Edwards was a member of the crew that recorded three fourth-place finishes and a fifth.
Thinking back on his time with the Gryphons, three things stand out – the 2015 OUA championship Yates Cup win, the years leading up to that title win and his ACL injury.
“I think adversity shaped the success,” he said. “They had lost the Yates Cup final to (McMaster) the year before I arrived. My first year there, we didn’t get to the Yates Cup. We lost to Queen’s in the semifinal. The next year we went back to Mac and lost by five points (in the Yates Cup final) and neither defence let up a touchdown. And then finally winning it at Western against Western, that grind and growth as a team to get there, my experiences with my teammates, the guys I call my best friends today.
“The staff and all the efforts put in by the coaching staff, the assistant staff and therapy.”
And then there’s the ACL injury.
“It was one of the hardest things that happened in my life, which is miniscule with what we’re looking at today with the pandemic going on,” he said. “But it was (also) one of the best things that happened in my life. It shaped me. I believe adversity shapes you holistically as a person, physically, mentally, spiritually and academically – all of it if you’ll allow it to.
“My years at Guelph were very formative years and I think the vision of the past head coaches, especially coach (Stu) Lang, was for it to be your formative years and that you wouldn’t just leave a champion, but you’d leave like a champion in life and that you’d be shaped into a great man.
“I learned a lot and I confirmed a lot about myself. Sometimes you’ve got to go through that.”
And if the ACL injury hadn’t happened, he probably wouldn’t be riding on the back of a bobsled with the goal of competing in the Winter Olympics.
“I don’t know what would’ve happened.”