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Podcast / November 03 2022

Bobsledder Kaillie Humphries and the fight against abusive coaching

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Bobsledder Kaillie Humphries won her third gold medal at the 2022 Winter Olympics. But, for the first time, instead of singing along to “O Canada” during the medal ceremony, Kaillie belted out the words to “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Kaillie left Team Canada in 2019, after she says her federation failed to act on her allegations of verbal and mental abuse against the team’s coach. Now Kaillie is hoping her story helps to reform the Olympic system and help other athletes stand up against negative coaching and abuse.

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I remember when I first qualified for my first US national team. I thought, this is, you know, going to be this really amazing experience. It’s, you know, going to be a place of, like, unity and support. And I really felt like, from all of the hard work and the time and energy I put into qualifying for this team, that it was going to be a safe space for me. And I really quickly found out that, you know, it wasn’t the safe haven that I imagined. It was really difficult to be on a team where I felt like the coaching staff and the management made great efforts to break me mentally, to have me question my ability as an athlete, to question, you know, me and my faith. But also even just, you know, the way that I appeared as a Black woman in the sport of fencing who wore hijabs. So it was challenging to compete at the highest level of sport and to climb the ranks of, of sport and, you know, these attempts to become one of the best fencers in the world, but to do that with this really heavy anchor. 


I think that there’s a lot of us out there, a lot of athletes who choose to say nothing because it’s really self-preservation, you know? Because all your eggs are in this one basket. Are you going to drop your basket? Are you going to jeopardize all the hard work, the time that you’ve put into building this Olympic dream and building this career? And for me, I felt like in order to make it to the end—and the end was the Olympics, the end was the podium—to make it there, I felt like I had to just keep going, and I didn’t have time to stop. I couldn’t stop to, to say, “Hey, this is wrong.” The way that I’m being treated, the way that my teammates were treating me, the way that my coaches were treating me. I couldn’t stop and say, you know, “There’s gender discrimination,” or, you know, religious discrimination or racial discrimination. I had to just keep going. And I don’t know if I would have had accomplished what I did in sport if I had stopped to really think about what was happening to me.




From Doha Debates and Foreign Policy, this is The Long Game, a podcast about the power of sports to change the world. I’m your host, Ibtihaj Muhammad.



And I’m executive producer Karen Given. This week, Ibtihaj interviews Kaillie Humphries. You might remember Kaillie for her inspiring performance in the monobob—that’s the single-person bobsled event—at the 2022 Winter Olympics.



It is gold for Team USA and Kaillie Humphries! [SOUND OF CROWD CLAPPING AND CHEERING] In her first Olympics for the stars and stripes! It’s a golden moment!


KAREN: For 16 years, Kaillie competed for the Canadian women’s bobsled team. She won two Olympic gold medals for Team Canada in 2010 and 2014. And she was a champion for women, pressuring her sport to add a second women’s event to the Olympic roster. But in 2019, in a move that shocked many of her fans, Kaillie left Team Canada.


IBTIHAJ: I watched Kaillie’s story develop in the news, like the rest of us.



One of this country’s most decorated Olympians is taking legal action to leave Team Canada and compete for the United States…



…Claiming verbal and mental abuse by team coach Todd Hayes. And there are allegations teammates have been told not to cooperate with the investigation unless they want to be blackballed…



Humphries is clearly torn about this. Representing Canada has defined her career.


KAREN: Bobsleigh Canada denied that there was any abuse, and Kaillie’s former coach sued her for defamation. It’s now been almost five years since Kaillie first made her allegations, and the matter is still under investigation. But more recently, more than 90 current and former Canadian bobsled and skeleton athletes signed a letter calling for the Canadian government to clean up the toxic culture within the sport. And in late October, the federation agreed to join a government program designed to address issues of abuse, discrimination and harassment in Canadian sports.


IBTIHAJ: It’s really interesting to see someone of Kaillie’s stature in the bobsled community to almost walk away from everything that she knew, from everything that she loved, because she wanted to make a point that there’s no room for mental and physical abuse in sport, for gender discrimination in sport. If someone of Kaillie’s prominence in the bobsled community is not being heard, what happens to the rest of us?




IBTIHAJ: We appreciate you making time for us today. Your situation began in 2017. By then, you had already competed in two Olympics, won two gold medals—





IBTIHAJ: But the Canadian team got a new head coach. Was there trouble right away?



Yes. Within the first week of him being head coach, we definitely butted heads. Both of us being very strong personalities. The head coach that we had received had come from—actually, from Team USA. And understanding, too, that unfortunately, there’s no worldwide regulated system. So if a coach leaves one country, they can easily just go to another and another and another. And there’s nothing that stops negative coaches from being held accountable. And so within the first week, I was in tears, being yelled and screamed at, publicly humiliated, being discriminated for—based on my gender. I was looked down on regularly, and I was made an example of. And as a strong female, mentally, physically, emotionally, I thought, “I can do this, I can take this. We’ve just had one argument.” One led to two, and it was pretty much every single week. Then it started to escalate, where it was at the top of bobsled tracks, in front of other coaching staff, other athletes. In front of the world. I was being demeaned, demoralized, humiliated publicly. And the language that was used, the amount of tears that I shed over—just embarrassment, but I started to lose myself. I started to doubt who I was, what type of athlete that I was, whether I could do it or not. If you’re distracted, even for a moment, if you’re fearful of making a mistake, if you go into an actual bobsled run not confident in yourself, in your abilities, what you’re doing, you risk your actual physical safety, as well. And you risk that of your teammates. And this coach had been arrested for assault before, and had an Ultimate Fighting background. I wasn’t sure if I was going to get punched in the face. I wasn’t sure if I was going to get knocked out. And when that started to happen, I told my leadership. I told the people I was supposed to tell, the people up above: the high-performance director, the president, CEO. “I don’t feel comfortable and safe. I want to go home. I’m not OK with this.”


IBTIHAJ: So you raised these concerns to the Federation. How did they react?


KAILLIE: I got told, “Well, he’s the head coach. He’s not going anywhere. We need to find a way to help you guys communicate.” That led to, “You need to work with a sport psychologist, but give him personal information so that he can have, you know, more info to be a better coach for you.” And I was like, “Hold on. That feels wrong.”




KAILLIE: I’m not going to divulge all my secrets and then have him be able to use that. I already don’t feel comfortable. And so that inevitably led to, “Look, it’s going to be me or him. Provide a different coach.” He didn’t need to get fired. I just said I couldn’t work with him moving forward. And for the Olympics, they allowed it. He had nothing to do with me whatsoever at the Olympic Games in 2018. And it was the best two weeks of my entire life. It was so great. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to continue. And I also knew I needed to stand up, not just for myself, but for everybody else that couldn’t. I know there’s athletes that have gone through something very similar to me, and unfortunately they didn’t say anything. And because of it, that coach came to me. And I refused to be the female that was going to let another woman later on—10, 20, 30 years down the line—feel the way that I felt, or fear for her physical safety or actually worse—get beat or hit—because I didn’t say something.


IBTIHAJ: Yeah. I think it reaches so much further than just your sport, honestly. There’s so many, especially female athletes, who I think—who experience very similar situations. Like, for me, as an athlete who, I feel like, faced a lot of discrimination, faced a lot of mental abuse and never once considered physical abuse. Your former coach and the Canadian Bobsled Federation have both denied there was any abuse at all.


KAILLIE: Of course.


IBTIHAJ: For you and from your perspective, was that difficult to prove?


KAILLIE [SIGHS]: Yes, it is definitely challenging. It’s hard to hear them deny everything, because I know the truth. My truth, at least. I’ve been a part of sport—this will be my twentieth year in having a bobsled career. I was at year 16 when that happened. I felt strong and, like, “I can fight this.” And I fought it for years—people that look down upon us as females within the bobsled world. “You’re not good enough, skilled enough, fast enough, strong enough,” things that are constantly told to us as females. “You can’t go on the same tracks. You can’t drive four men.” And I would constantly show them that that’s wrong. But in this scenario, with this coach, every single time I stood my ground, I stood up for myself and my performance and/or I simply just wanted to walk away, I was chased down, hunted, and it got worse. And I didn’t know what to do. Having the strength to say something, I trusted that those leaders were supposed to be there for me. I trusted that their job is to keep us safe while we’re trying to represent and do the best work we can do. And when it came time to it, I had to make the call to ask to leave, even if it meant my career was over, the Olympics were done. There was no guarantee when I chose to step away that I was going to have another career option. And unfortunately, a lot of athletes don’t. And so I knew, also, that I had to say something in order to try and change the sports world. Because at the end of the day, it’s one thing to go through it and to experience it, but it’s another thing to make this sport a better place for people behind me.


IBTIHAJ: A lot of people don’t understand what exactly goes into sport. They see someone like you on the podium. They see the results just in that one event, but they’re not really able to conceptualize what goes into sport. You know, the really long hours, the training, the injuries. To say, “OK, I no longer choose to represent this country”—because your federation didn’t stand up for you, did not support you, so you chose yourself—what was it like to be, you know, without a country to represent?


KAILLIE: It was hard. It took a while to get to that point. The investigation went on for a year, so I had a year to figure out what I was going to do, and I could see the writing on the wall. And I’ve seen this before, with other athletes, where investigations go on for two or three or four years, internal investigations, because there’s no timeline. The policies and procedures. No one holds these coaches, these directors and CEOs accountable. And after one year, there was still no result. And I was not going to let them take the last year that I had, make it the worst year of my entire sport, and then also end my career on their terms. I wasn’t going to sit there idly by and let them diminish, demean, publicly humiliate, because at the end of the day, federations, they have media attachés, they have lawyers that are CEOs. I’m an athlete. That’s what I do. And so—


IBTIHAJ: With limited resources.


KAILLIE: With limited resources and limited funds to be able to hire lawyers to get better resources and to be able to fight them, legally, in a system where they’ve had time to plan and to prepare. As I’m trying to be at the Olympics and perform, they’re doing all their research. They’re getting all their ducks in a row. It definitely is abuse of power and process, very much, in a lot of scenarios. And so the choice to continue my career, the choice to reach out to Team USA, for them to be able to accept me—it, it was a hard choice. It’s switching countries. I got released from Team Canada, which was a whole ordeal in itself, because for two months they refused to release me. And they were trying to put it past the—there’s a transition date an athlete has. You have to be with your team, that you’re going to go to the Olympics for, three years in advance. So I knew I had a very finite window and it had to happen by September 30th.


IBTIHAJ: September 30th of what year?


KAILLIE: This was of 2019. And so I had asked to be released, and they said no. I had to go to court. And basically they were holding me sports hostage. They weren’t going to release me for anti-competitive reasons. They literally came out into the media and said, “She’s too competitive. We don’t want to race against her.” And I’m like, “You can’t do that. You can’t not let me go to another country but then also not provide safe and adequate coaching and a decent environment to be in.”


IBTIHAJ: Yeah. And not hear you when you say, like, “I’m hurting.”


KAILLIE: I’m hurting. Just give me a different coach.


IBTIHAJ: It’s crazy.


KAILLIE: Yeah, I know.


IBTIHAJ: Like, what a crazy situation to put someone in.


KAILLIE: It was. After two months of negotiating back and forth, trying to figure out how lawsuits work and all of the above, eventually I got released, and USA was able to accept me as an athlete, which was awesome. I had the backing of our international federation, the IBSF, the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation. They were really supportive, which was great. Team USA was really supportive of me coming on board, and I was excited to join a different team. My grandfather was a dual citizen. I had been training in the US for years and years and years. I’d actually been living in the US since 2016. Even while I was competing for Team Canada, I was living with my boyfriend—fiancé, now husband. But then came the task of citizenship and getting it in time.


IBTIHAJ: You’re listening to The Long Game, from Doha Debates and Foreign Policy. I’m your host, Ibtihaj Muhammad.




IBTIHAJ: You didn’t know at this point whether or not you would be able to compete for the United States. Can you set the scene for us? What was it like to try to prepare for an Olympic Games with this looming, you know, over your head. Just waiting. Because we were all waiting with you.




IBTIHAJ: Right? I remember it was like, you know, headline news for the Olympics.





I am still waiting for my citizenship to come through. We’re doing everything we possibly can to make this happen as fast as we can. But it’s still an unknown at this point. It’s, it’s scary, definitely. As the games get closer, the pressure goes up. But, you know, this is part of the situation that I’m in.


KAILLIE: I ended up getting citizenship two weeks before the cutoff. I got it December 27th, with the cutoff being, I believe, January 12th. So it was only a good two and a half weeks before the Olympics and Team USA had to say yes or no to cut-off. And citizenship is the one thing that you have to have in order to be able to go to an Olympics. It was stressful. There was three years of me competing for Team USA. I won world championships three times in those three years for Team USA. But being in an environment that was positive, being in an environment that had previously chosen to not rehire this coach, I felt like I was amongst other people that knew the situation I was in and that supported me. I was so empowered coming to Team USA—the motivation I had, especially having a 16 year career, had restarted all over again. I also knew in my heart that when I walked away from Team Canada, my career was done, and all of this was a bonus. I was getting a second chance at life, at opportunity, living the American dream a hundred percent with sport. Coming to Team USA, it all just felt like a bonus. And if I didn’t go to the games, oh, I had my backup plans, trust me. [CHUCKLES]


IBTIHAJ: Yeah, no, I believe you.


KAILLIE: I was going to go on a beach. I was going to turn off the TV, not exist for a very long time.


IBTIHAJ: No, you seem like a planner. I know that there was a plan in place.


KAILLIE: Yes, there was a plan. At the end of the day, though, I was going to fight, because if and when it did come through, in time, then I was going to be ready to go. And I couldn’t afford to—not work out. I couldn’t afford to not compete. I knew when I stood on that starting line, I was ready to go, a hundred percent. And I needed to work for those three years everyday to get to that point. And so it—it was definitely a blessing, being able to be a part of Team USA now.


IBTIHAJ: And feel that support, and— 


KAILLIE: And for us—


IBTIHAJ: —it’s like, “We’re, we’re the Lakers. We just got LeBron.” [KAILLIE LAUGHS] I mean, I’m sure, you know, Team USA bobsled was over the moon to have you join part of the team.


KAILLIE: They were. They made it … challenging, for sure. I wasn’t just able to walk on the team, and they made that very clear. I had to make Team USA like everybody else. I spent 70 grand buying a bobsled, because I couldn’t use the team stuff right away. I had to, you know, go to camp, do every single step that any other American would have to do. But I appreciated that. I respected that, because at the end of the day, I had to earn it just like everybody else. And when I did make the team, the coaching styles were just so drastically different, too. And the respect that I felt. It was, “Well, what do you need? How do we get you to continuously win?” And I went from having won gold in 2014, not winning a world championship since, since 2013, to winning three in a row. I knew I was in the right place at that point. 


The questions that were asked of me: “How can we make you better?” You know, “What info do you have to the younger coaches? What do you think should happen within your career and within the sport? How do we get these young guys better?” And I was like, “Are these trick questions? What do you mean? Like, you want my advice?”


IBTIHAJ: “Wait, someone’s asking me what I think?”


KAILLIE: Somebody thinks I have value? 




KAILLIE: And—or that I know what I’m doing as a female in a very male-dominated sport? And these are male coaches that are bringing me on board, asking me what I need in order to be better. They’re trusting me and my performance because of what I’ve done. And I think that having that dialogue, being able to work together as a team—not just being diminished, demoralized, publicly humiliated and fearing for my physical safety—it was like night and day. Totally different. And I just blossomed into this whole other athlete. And it also made competing for those three years, unsure if I was going to make the Olympics—it made it possible. Because I knew even if I didn’t go, I wouldn’t have changed a single thing. And I was going to be OK, regardless of what happened, mentally.


IBTIHAJ: And are there still hard feelings between you and Team Canada?




IBTIHAJ: It’s on the paper, I mean— [LAUGHS] 


KAILLIE: Between me and Bobsleigh Canada? 


IBTIHAJ: Yeah, yeah.


KAILLIE: Yes, there are. Since the 2022 Olympics, there were 90 Bobsled Canada skeleton athletes that came forward and wrote a letter claiming toxic culture and environment amongst the leadership. So that provided a lot of justification for what I did. I knew I wasn’t crazy. And if you have 90 of your other athletes coming forward, making very, very similar claims, I know it’s not personal and it had nothing to do with me. And so, yeah, it’s, it’s hard. I know I have support from the Canadian fan base. I know that there’s still tons of Canadians, some that, on social media—and I know you understand this—are very passionate, and like to think that my life and my career is theirs and they have a say or an opinion on it, and that, you know, they’re going to call me the B-word and the C-word and every name under the sun. “I hope you die.” All of the above. And it’s emotional for them. And for me, it was about getting to compete for a country that wanted me. It was about competing for a country that was going to empower me to be the best that I could be, being in an environment where I was physically and mentally safe to be in. And representing the United States, a country that, that backed me up, but more importantly, that supported me as a whole entire person—that meant more to me than anything. And that’s how I could stand on that podium, so proud to be wearing the stars and stripes, to be singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” as loud as I possibly could, because I know what it’s like to be in a negative environment and to be in a positive environment. And I want to—I want to go where there’s positivity, always.


IBTIHAJ: So when we look at that picture and your story more broadly, what needs to be done to keep athletes safe? Whether it’s bobsled, soccer, fencing, you name it—how do we protect our athletes?


KAILLIE: Yes, you’re seeing that a lot now. Not only in Canadian sport with Hockey Canada, Rowing Canada, rugby, bobsled. And we’ve seen it in the US with gymnastics and others. It’s very rare athletes make claims that are unsupported or unsubstantiated. Unfortunately, the systems are allowed to investigate themselves, which is how we get in these very bad situations. They get to hire internal investigations, prove there’s no evidence, skate around the issue, and athletes are very powerless. And so I think having third-party accountability is so important. Somebody that is not vested, that isn’t getting paid by a federation, by a specific coach. People that understand abuse, harassment, whether it be sexual, mental or physical, whatever it is—that’s how you’re going to get not only the safety of the athletes, but of the organization, so that you don’t have athletes in the same time just making false claims. Because I think it’s important that an investigative process be fair to both parties, but unfortunately it’s not, in most cases. It’s very NGB—national governing body—specific. And they have all of the power. And so the only power I had was to walk away. But most athletes don’t, which is why they don’t say anything. Their career is on the line. They don’t have Olympic golds to fall back on.


IBTIHAJ: Or even just their position on the team. Like, when I think about my sport and, like, a lot of the abuse I felt like I faced, it was far easier to ignore it, because I wanted to stay myopic in my goals and my focus, which was to win. So sometimes you just kind of negate the things that you’re experiencing and the way that someone’s making you feel, because it’s like, no, I really have to focus on my job, which is to compete and perform well. And so I have to ignore what’s happening to me. And even if I do bring it up, how is that going to impact whether or not I’m named to the team, whether or not I’m given the opportunity to represent Team USA? And so to your point, I think there are a lot of athletes who find it easier not to speak up and not to find their voice.


KAILLIE: It’s hard, and for an athlete to step back and go, “Hey, my health is more important,” whether it be physical, mental—and I can honestly say watching Simone Biles do it in 2021 when, you know, she chose to not do certain events and to give up the opportunity for medals or to sit out, because she didn’t feel right—



I was like, “I think the girls need to do the rest of the competition without me.” And they were like, “I promise you, you’re fine. We watched you warm up.” And I said, “No, I know I’m going to be fine, but I can’t risk a medal for the team, so I need to call it.”


KAILLIE: Watching Simone do it in 2021 was huge for me, because I knew I was going to be OK regardless. 


IBTIHAJ: Mm-hmm.


KAILLIE: I want another athlete to be able to say the same thing. I want them to go, “I saw Kaillie do it. And you know what? She went on to win an Olympic gold medal for Team USA.” And so it’s not a death sentence to speak up. 




KAILLIE: It’s not a death sentence in your career to say, “I don’t feel OK,” or, “I’m not right.” And I think as athletes, that’s held over us. If, if you say anything, you won’t get a specific equipment. We’ll turn your teammates against you. The coaches won’t put you on the team, because they have coach’s discretion. And while that is true and while I lived all of it—I had all my funding removed, everything taken away, the retaliation for speaking up was a hundred percent there—I went on to be more successful. And I think that’s the positive, is it—it’s important for us as athletes to stand up for ourselves and to stand up for each other.


IBTIHAJ: What’s next for you?


KAILLIE: So my goal is 2026. Although 2022 was successful, and I won a gold in monobob, I didn’t do so great in two man. And so I want to be able to go in the—both women’s events. I want to be able to, to medal, hopefully win two golds in 2026. I also want to start a family, so my husband and I are currently going through IVF. I’m going to compete this season, and then we’ll look to implant and start a family next summer. And that will be my focus, of my real life versus my sports life, being able to start a family and have them travel with me as we head to 2026.


IBTIHAJ: So I, I have a question I feel like I have to ask. 




IBTIHAJ: Do you ever wonder, like, what if I had done this sooner? Where would my career be, or, like, what would I have been able to achieve?


KAILLIE: Mmm, no, I don’t wonder that. 


IBTIHAJ: Mm-hmm.


KAILLIE: When you’re in the moment, when you’re currently living it, the athlete brain takes over. And the skills and the tools you develop to overcome obstacles or hurdles, to get through to the next, to still be successful regardless of the therapy you’re receiving or how your teammates are acting—you have to have this skill set of being able to drown things out to overcome. And unfortunately, you start using all those tools in negative situations. And you kind of—it puts blinders on. And so I couldn’t have foreseen that I would have ever been an athlete that would come forward and say, “Hey, I’ve been abused, harassed, discriminated against.” I feared for my safety, because I thought as a strong female, there’s no way I’m ever going to be in that situation. But I did. I found myself in that situation for a year, and I ignored it and I processed it the best that I could. And I came out of it broken. Between not only PTSD, but being super depressed, having to take meds, getting headaches and the physical signs—I was getting rashes and hives all over my body. That’s when I started to realize, hey, something’s very, very wrong. This isn’t an Olympic blues. This isn’t a normal thing. I have some major trauma here that I have to heal. And I had to go seek out all of those resources alone. And that was the first step, of feeling like, “I’m disposable here, and I need to look out for myself.” I couldn’t have done it any earlier. I don’t think I was ready in my career. I don’t think I was strong enough, mentally, as an athlete, either. So I think the year that it came about, the situation I found myself in, kind of forced me into a corner. And I was either going to turtle or stand up and roar, and I knew I needed to stand up and say something. And because of the timing, I think it allowed me to move forward completely clear and free of mind. It allowed me—although the comments on social media, for a good while, hurt and still do sometimes, I built up a thick enough skin. And I know that I did what was best for me and I did what was best for future generations of athletes.


IBTIHAJ: Kaillie, there’s a saying that whatever is meant for you will reach you, even if it’s beneath two mountains, and what’s not meant for you won’t reach you, even if it’s between your two lips. And I feel like, I’m hopeful there are many gold medals in your future. And you’ve, you’ve spoken so eloquently about your journey; so much strength and resilience that, you know, you have. And I hope that these words, you know, reach the right people. And, you know, your story, I know, is meant to empower so many of us as athletes. So we appreciate your time and your words. And I look forward to following you, on your journey and your family and everything.


KAILLIE [LAUGHS]: Well, thank you. I appreciate it. And yeah, I mean, life is hard. And sport is hard. And everybody has a unique journey and a story to tell. So I appreciate being able to come forward, and I hope my story does help somebody else get through a hard time or stand up for themselves. But I want people to know that sport is an awesome place, and I wouldn’t change it for the world. And I love what I do. And now that I’m in an environment that believes in safe sport and actually [CHUCKLES] works towards it, I couldn’t be in a more powerful place.


IBTIHAJ: That’s it for this episode of The Long Game. I’m your host, Ibtihaj Muhammad. The Long Game is a co-production of Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. Our executive producer is Karen Given.


KAREN: We had help from Dan Ephron, Rob Sachs, Japhet Weeks, Amjad Atallah and Jigar Mehta. Make sure to follow us on Apple or your favorite podcast app. And please leave us a review.


IBTIHAJ: To learn more, subscribe to Foreign Policy, a global magazine of news and ideas. Or visit Doha Debates, a production of Qatar Foundation. Next week on the podcast…


KAREN: Michael Lahoud was in his second year as a professional soccer player in the US when he was approached by a stranger in a hotel lobby.



So we sit down, and before I could even get comfortable, she just said, “How would you like to change the world?” No one had ever asked me that question. I didn’t even know I—that was an option for me. lt almost, like, penetrated my soul.


KAREN: That question—“How would you like to change the world?”—led Michael to raise money to build a school in his native Sierra Leone.


IBTIHAJ: That’s next time on The Long Game.