You may notice something a little different about my website. In fact, it’s a completely new site. Although I liked the old site, it was a necessity to change things up as my old site got hacked into and taken over by hackers during my time in Europe. I don’t know exactly how or when it happened, but it did and my site was completely destroyed. I am in the process of retrieving whatever information I can, as it has years of blogs, results and photos that I don’t have back-ups of. Frustrating as it is, change can be a good thing and I am excited about working on this new site. If you just want to see photos from this leg of the journey, scroll to the bottom or look in the photo gallery section.
My last blog left off after my first two Intercontinental Cup Races in Lillehammer, Norway. After that the team moved on to Sigulda, Latvia, to yet another new track and new country. Getting there wasn’t without some drama. We left from Lillehammer early in the morning the day following the race, drove 6 hours through early morning mist and frost all the way to Stockholm, Sweden. We had a reasonable window of time to get to the port to catch our “cruise” over to Riga, which was promptly cut short upon our arrival in Stockholm and the discovery that all road access to the downtown/port area was restricted due to the Nobel Prize awards ceremony. We had no map, a useless GPS, and no Plan B. Eventually through a lot of stopping on the side of the road to get directions from random people, we managed to find an alternate route to the ship. With minutes to spare, we formed an assembly line to shuttle all our luggage and heavy equipment from the parking lot, up through the port building, and onto the ship. At least we got in our lifting session in for the day! Unfortunately this is also where we had to say goodbye to our teammate Darla who was suffering from an injury and needed to go back to Canada.
The overnight ferry was quite an experience, highlighted by a winter storm with huge waves and high winds. Fortunately, I was tucked up in my “cozy” inside cabin and took little notice of the ship swaying and lilting. My coach and some other teammates weren’t quite as lucky and looked a little green in the morning.
Eventually we made it to Sigulda, the small town in Latvia that is home to one of the world’s most challenging skeleton tracks. It’s a picturesque small town, full of eastern European charm and mystique, including several castles in near vicinity.
As for the track, prior to Whistler it was perhaps the most difficult track in the world, although arguments could be made for Altenberg. It certainly has some of the highest pressure corners in the world. It hasn’t been on the circuit for a number of years for many reasons, including the fact it is difficult for bobsleds to get through the tight and high pressure corners safely, and the relative remoteness of the track.
Like Lillehammer, the fact that the track hadn’t been on any skeleton circuit recently meant we had very few sources to get track notes and direction from. Fortunately, we were able to bring along Ivo Pakalns, a former Latvian skeleton athlete who now coaches in Whistler. His insight and guidance was invaluable at navigating this new and difficult track.
Upon arrival at the track, I immediately developed a sense of anxiety at looking at not only the unfamiliar, but the alien. The track is unlike any I had seen before, it is elevated on stilts many stories up in the air. To get to the top you have to take an elevator! We arrived at night, and with the orangish lights and mist it looked like some sort of otherworldly airstrip. Taking the elevator up up up and walking out onto the track was also an experience. On either side of the track there was a small iron walkway, but no safety barriers or walls to the ten story drop below. Theoretically, if you somehow managed to trip badly enough at the start and fall out of the track, you would fall to certain death. Although I can’t imagine a way in which this could actually happen, the mere possibility of it freaked me out.
Once we got to actually slide on the track, it was easy to forget the first few corners were suspended in mid air. Every ounce of focus was needed to get down the track safely, memorize the curves/pressures/lines and then find a way to do it faster. The track was indeed challenging, but also smooth and interesting. Old habits of using my toes to steer and forgetting about bullet-like form were creeping in, but I tried to to push those aside as race day approached.
Similar to Lillehammer, the sun was not present for the entirety of our stay in Latvia. Most days were rainy and cool. On race day we woke up to snow and I knew conditions would be significantly different from training. Snow usually slows down the ice, which had been getting progressively faster each day in training. It can also create challenging and sometimes unfair conditions depending on where the athlete is in the start order, when and how long the snow continues for, etc. I drew start position 3, which on snow races can be an advantage as snow tends to accumulate as the day goes on. Usually, the earlier off the better.
However, it did not work out that way. After my first run I was delighted to cross the finish line with a #1 flashing beside my name, especially considering that the two athletes before me were excellent sliders. However, soon after I went down the snow stopped. As I sat as the bottom I saw slider after slider coming down with progressively faster times. A similar situation occurred just a week prior on the World Cup circuit in Winterberg. Melissa Hollingsworth, our top Canadian slider and Olympic medalist, did not even manage to qualify for a second run because of an early race draw on a snow track. There was nothing I could do about it though, and after a few encouraging words from Ivo, I was prepared to climb up the ladder in the second heat.
Given my poor placing after the first run, I was up relatively early in the second heat (it operates on a reverse order protocol with slowest off first). The two girls prior to me, who were also significantly impacted by the snow, were both significantly faster in the second heat. As I approached the line I was determined to move up the ranks and push and slide as fast as possible. It wasn’t meant to be though, as only a few steps off the blocked I popped out of the groove. I knew it was bad, but I had to maintain composure and salvage as much of the rest of the run as I could. I tried to keep the sled straight, despite being out of the groove, and loaded quickly to prevent hitting the wall or worse. Entering corner one I could feel I had no speed, but I sunk into the sled and tried to gain as much as possible as I navigated down the track. It didn’t work, I ended up ninth. This was very disappointing as I had been training well, certainly within medal contention realm.
The next day brought another race, a chance for redemption. I had a later start number, and considering there was light snow falling again I actually hoped this would be a better starting position than the day before. I was nervous on the block, remembering the pop-out I had the day before, and pushed off tentatively. As you can imagine, tentative and skeleton aren’t two words that compliment each other, and my start time was far slower than I was capable of. On the way down I made a few other significant mistakes, and ended up 9th at the end of the heat.
I felt a wave of disappointment come over me. This time my poor placing wasn’t because I popped the groove or had to slide in a blizzard, it was because I didn’t do a good job. I was tentative on the push, loosing valuable time right off the start, and not sharp and focused as I needed to be on the way down. I had a choice to either write off this race as well, or to completely refocus and have an amazing second run. Since quitting isn’t generally part of my constitution, I decided to go with the latter and put everything I had into the second run.
Off the block I gave the push my all, and was a huge 13/100ths faster. I had a clean top, and as I coursed through the track I focused on keeping form and gathering speed. My bottom, which in the prior run was a bit of a mess, was much better and as I sped through both straightaways clean, I knew even before I saw my time I had accomplished my mission. Not surprisingly, my time was significantly better, half a second faster actually. This allowed me to move from 9th to 4th position. I was proud I was able to pull it together after 3 bad runs in a row, and end on a positive note.
We have been back home now for about a month. The first couple of weeks back I went on a work binge and tried to replete my fast diminishing bank account. I spent the first week of the New Year in Park City, Utah, doing some extra training in preparation for Races #7 and #8 coming up in February. I then drove to Whistler for another week of solo training on the track that I have grown to crave. It was a great week full of new and old friends, and amiable competition with the local sliders. That’s right Sean, that Poncho is mine!
Currently I am in Calgary, training and preparing for the upcoming Races #5 and #6 on my beloved home track. The races are February 3 and 4 at Canada Olympic Park at 18:00, so please come out and cheer on your Canadian team!