Canada’s first Olympic luge medals are being credited to a combination of prior heartbreak, hard-won experience and slide-time on the world’s fastest luge track near Whistler, B.C.
The Whistler Sliding Centre, 125 kilometres north of Vancouver, had controversial beginnings after it was built in 2008, but it has become a focus for sliding sports.
Walter Corey, performance director for Canada’s luge athletes who won both bronze and silver medals at the Olympic Winter Games earlier this week, said training at a challenging B.C. track helped the athletes win.
“It was quite a technical track. That was really key,” Corey said before he was interrupted by 1994 gold medallist Wilfried Huber of Italy shouting kudos at the games in Pyeongchang.
The Canadian team received congratulations from the luge community worldwide.
Two-time Canadian luge Olympian Jeff Christie said Whistler had an enormous impact.
“The kids that grow up sliding at Whistler are going to be really good international sliders,” he said.
The ice track in Whistler sees 17,000 runs every winter, by athletes and the public, said Lucinda Jagger, vice president of sport for Whistler Sport Legacies.
“It’s a fast track. It just requires the athletes to have a little more technical finesse,” said Jagger, who is overjoyed to see Canadian athletes emerging as leaders in a sport historically dominated by Europeans.
“Luge is a very, very hard sport to be very good at,” said Jagger.
Initially, the $105-million track went over-budget and a few years later was overshadowed by safety concerns after a luger died during a practice run at the track during the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
The death was blamed on speed and inexperience, and the track was adjusted after the tragedy.
Since then, the sliding centre has become the focal point of slide sport development, fanning the interest of a new generation of athletes.
Grade-school sliders can try out a few slower curves on the track that propels lugers up to 145 km/h.
That’s where rising 19-year-old stars, Verónica Ravenna of Argentina and Whistler’s Reid Watts got their start.
Watts first tried luge at Whistler when he was eight years old.
A decade later, fans watched him finish 12th overall in the men’s single event at the 2018 Pyeongchang games.
Biggest training season ever
The national luge team spends up to four weeks training at Whistler every fall.
Jagger said this fall saw the biggest demand ever for the track, which opened earlier than usual in September for world-class teams seeking ice time.
“It was our biggest year so far,” she said.
Jagger said competitors are enticed by the challenges, diversity and high-quality of the ice on the 1,450-metre track that snakes through an area of Blackcomb Mountain that the Squamish Nation called the Wild Spirit Place.
The ice, which is two to five centimetres thick, is maintained daily by experts, some of whom are working on the track in Pyeongchang.
Calgary athlete Alex Gough won Canada’s first luge medal, taking the women’s singles bronze on Feb. 13.
Two days later she, along with other veterans on the Canadian luge relay team, won silver.
The team has built up to this win since a tragic setback in Vancouver in 2010, and a disappointment at the Sochi Olympics in 2014, said their performance director.
A tragic crash at the Vancouver Olympics in 2010 killed Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili, 21, during a practice run.
It was the first luge fatality since the sport premiered in Austria in 1964.
Corey said the tragic death lead to a last-minute change of the starting height or elevation for all lugers, to be safe.
The Canadian team had not trained for this and — in a sport measured by tenths of a second — a last-minute change is devastating.
Heartbreak sparks team on
Four years later, the team was psyched at the 2014 Sochi games, but came fourth. They were later awarded the bronze medal after the Russian team was disqualified for doping.
“I think that heartbreak really motivated the group,” said Corey.
Four more years of training lead the same team to achieve laser focus for the 2018 Olympic Games, he said.
“They delivered and thankfully the sliding gods smiled upon us and here we are at a very successful games.”