World Cup #8- Sochi da!

From the moment the location for the 2014 Olympics were announced I started dreaming about Sochi, Russia.  The Vancouver Winter Olympics fired my desire to not be just a spectator or volunteer at the Olympics, but an actual competitor.  Of course, I had childhood dreams about going to the Olympics. I think most athletic people do at some point in their lives.  As 2014 approached, I realized this dream could turn into a reality.  However, it all came crumbling down early on in the season last year and the end result was no Olympics for me.


Sochi 2014 signage at the finish line of the skeleton track.


This year when I made the World Cup team I learned that Sochi was on the circuit for the 8th and final World Cup race.  Finally, my chance to see the Olympic venue and compete at the Sanki Sliding Center had come!  However, at that point I still had to make it through two athlete evaluations, and our NSO hadn’t decided whether we would actually participate or not, so I wasn’t holding my breath.  As the season progressed and I jumped through the necessary hurdles I realized Sochi was only a race or two away.  During the week in Igls we learned, finally and definitively, that team Canada would be competing in Russia. Yes!


Rosa Khutor

It was a great experience.  I felt like a rock star. Everything was taken care of by either the FIBT, the Russian Federation or private backers.  For example, we flew there on a private charter.  Luxury buses were awaiting our arrival to whisk us off to Rosa Khutor, the mountain village where our hotel was situated.  The hotel, the Golden Tulip Inn, was modern with well-appointed rooms, great food and reasonable internet access.  Each day for training we would shuttle to the track, which was gorgeous as well.  The start area is huge and it reminds me of a cathedral.  The whole track is covered and has a handy little walkway right beside it.  In fact, when the shades or closed apparently the track has a “micro-climate” which can be carefully controlled.  The warm up area has a luxurious covered 60m running track, perfect for warming up and training no matter the weather.

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The start area at Sanki Sliding Center

The track itself is very unique.  It has several uphill sections which make it feel more like a roller coaster ride, with negative and positive G-forces, than any other track.  The start is short and quick, which I like, and the track has good length to it.  It’s challenging as well.  Several same direction turns and high pressure areas require finesse and good track awareness.  After a few days of training, however, I realized it would take more than the allotted six official training runs for me to get a really good understanding of my third new track of the season.  Given the limitations, I tried to focus on the key areas and rely on good sliding principles to get through the rest.

On race day the conditions were fairly similar to training, and I was ready to give it a go.  I was off 8th, which unfortunately wasn’t a great race draw as the ice tends to degrade very quickly after the spritz.  I had a decent push, and a clean run, but it wasn’t fast.  I wasn’t sure what happened, but it was likely a combination of factors.  For the second run I decided not to change much as I couldn’t pin down exactly what to change.


Coming up the outrun.


Unfortunately, although my second run was significantly faster, it wasn’t enough to move me up in the standings.  I finished a decent 12th, but I had hoped for more.  I do think that in the future this is a track that it well suited to me and I could do better.   I look forward to this next time I get to slide at this beautiful venue.


Getting settled in for the run.


Next up, my first World Championship race in Winterberg, Germany!

World Cups #6, 7- Hot and Cold in Igls, Austria


A quick stop on the way to Igls in Verona to check out Juliet’s balcony!

After the race that never happened in La Plagne, we packed up and travelled down the French Alps, back through Italy, and up into Austria.  Igls was the 7th stop on the World Cup Circuit.  As I predicted the cancelled race was replaced by a second race in Igls.  As alluded to in my previous blog, it’s safe to say finding out that news wasn’t my favorite moment of the season.

Igls is a track that I have a guarded relationship with.  Touted as one of the easiest tracks on circuit, it seems to be a place most athletes like to come.  It’s certainly not scary and doesn’t usually require any aggressive steering. However for me it has some significant limitations.  First, it’s short.  Really short.  Because of my deficit on the push time I need at least some length in a track to “make up” for it on the way down.  With a reasonably good run, the push can carry the entire way down.  In Igls, generally your push rank after the first 50 meters will predict your finishing rank.  This season my push ranks have regrettably been near the bottom.  Add to this my previous experiences at Igls.  In the most recent ICC race in 2014 I melted my visor and did the second run blind from corner 2 on.  The year before I decided to take a brand new sled down with only 2 runs in training and for the first and only time in my career failed to get a second run. Finally, in my first competitive sliding season I had to do 3 one-heat races in one day because of terrible weather conditions and despite training at the top of the pack all week ended up finishing outside the top 6 in all three “races”.  Needless to say, I would have been a lot happier had any other track been used as the replacement World Cup race!


Cable car gliding over the track.

Despite all that, I boxed up my crappy attitude for the week and focused on having good lines and form.  I even stuck to the plan of a heavy dryland training week, in preparation for the upcoming World Championships, even knowing it could hurt my push on race day.  But I had to put my ego aside and focus on what was most important.

Training went well. I sorted out my equipment and pinned down my lines by the end of the six allotted training runs.  Race day came along without incident and I was ready.  I focused on having a technically sound push with as much power and speed as possible, and then settled into the sled.  I had a nice first run and executed my lines out of Kreisel and 9 the way I wanted.  I crossed the line knowing I had a good run.  At the end of the heat I couldn’t believe I was tied for 9th position!

I tried to keep it cool between runs.  A potential top ten finish in Igls was beyond my wildest dreams.   When it came time for my run I managed to push 5/100ths faster, however, I did fall before the person ahead of me.  But, it was only by one spot so I was guaranteed a top ten finish!  Another athlete fell behind me so in the end I finished 9th.  Although 9th may not seem like much, for me it was a huge accomplishment.  My push rank was 17th and 18th in those runs.  Therefore, I did what many, including myself would consider nearly impossible.


The only damper on the day was knowing I had to do it all again tomorrow.  Our races were back to back, and the second race started at a ridiculously early 8 am!  This meant I had to go directly home from the race and eat, sled prep, and try to get in the tiniest amount of recovery.

One thing I hadn’t accounted for was the change in weather overnight.  The forecast had predicted snow, which I prepared for, but the air temperatures dropped significantly more than I planned for. Furthermore, as the sun hadn’t risen by the start of our race I was worried I had the wrong runners on for these different conditions.

Unfortunately I was right.  With the snow and the harder ice my runners didn’t have the amount of grip I needed.  During my first run I felt like I was “floating” on the ice which is never a good thing.  I had a decent run, but with the small mistakes and microskids was only in 12th position after the first run.


Getting height in corner 10.

I hoped the ice would warm up a bit for the second but it didn’t.  In Igls, because the track is so short, the times are clustered very tightly and it is possible to see dramatic changes in positioning after combining two runs.  For me, this happened, but unfortunately in the wrong direction.  During my second run I was even skiddier which was compounded by a few small mistakes.  To my dismay as I crossed the finish line I realized I had fallen 5 spots.  I was devastated.  After all the athletes went down, I did move up one spot but finished 17th.  Although at the beginning of the week that would have been the result I expected, I was still terribly disappointed.

On the bright side, at least I didn’t hit a mysterious flyaway broom!


Jane and the broom

Once again Igls proved to be challenging.  Given that next year World Championships are here next year it gives me even more motivation to get my push to level where it needs to be.  Otherwise any small tip of the scale, whether it be the wrong runners, a small mistake at the top of the track, a small skid, or any other of the myriad of problems that can occur on the way down the track, will have devastating consequences for me.  I accept the challenge and resolve to spend the off season doing everything I can to remedy the situation.  I want to allow myself to be in a position where I don’t have to always be perfect during the run.  What a breath of fresh air that would be!

Next stop, a track I have spent years dreaming about–Sochi, Russia!



The race that never happened- World Cup #6 La Plagne

*I apologize for the delay in getting this post up, I have had technical issues with my website lately.  Hopefully they are resolved and please expect another blog or two in the week to follow.*


After the magical week in St. Moritz, we crossed over the Swiss Alps, descended into Italy and climbed back up into the French Alps.  La Plagne was my second new track of the season.  It has rarely been on tour between in the past decade, therefore relatively little is known about the track within our team.  Only two of our teammates out of six had been there before so it was going to require a lot of teamwork and making the most out of our limited pre-race training runs.


Crazy switchbacks leaving St. Moritz

Unfortunately on the first day of training, which was an extra day of paid training, the ice conditions were very rough.  Apparently La Plagne has a very successful tourist bobsled program.  This is great for the viability of the track but can ravage the ice. On my first descent down the track ever, the ice was bumpy almost the entire way down, and terribly so.  By the time I reached the bottom of the track it was difficult for me to focus on anything else other than the bumps and wanting the run to be over.


View of the track during the first track walk.

I would like to take a moment here to digress about what “bumpy” ice means to me.  Although the word itself is rather cute and seems benign enough (think “baby bump” or “birthday bumps”), bumps on a skeleton track are anything but.   Imagine laying on a glorified cafeteria tray, with your face one inch off the ground, and travelling at a speed of between 100-140 km/h.  In any situation that would be a little intimidating.  Now imagine that the surface you descend upon is rough.  Usually the ice texture is smooth, or smooth enough that it is something I don’t even notice, as I slide.  But when it’s rough, that cafeteria tray is going down a corrugated surface, like an old-fashioned washing board.  It causes your whole body and head to rapidly shake up and down.  In the flat sections of the track with no G-force this can be distracting, but imagine now you are inside a corner with 4-5 Gs of force pushing your head into the rough surface.  It’s horrible.  Herein a problem arises.  There is so little known about “sled head” (non-impact head injury in the sport of skeleton) and concussion, or the long term consequences of it.  In the past, or even sometimes today, it was written off as “that’s the way it is”, or “it’s part of the sport.”  But the more research we do, and the more that athletes emerge with serious short and long term morbidities, the more we learn we can’t ignore it anymore.

Most of the athletes, myself included, declined to take a second run.  I hoped that conditions would be significantly improved by the start of official training and didn’t want to expose myself to potential injury before official training (OT) even started.

Unfortunately, the conditions were not significantly better the next day and official training was cancelled again.  As you can imagine this was quite stressful for me as it meant I would have only 4 runs of OT on a brand new track before the race.  Having gone down once it was easy to tell that La Plagne is not a simple track.  It has several loopy double oscillation corners that require aggressive and precise steering, and a high degree of pressure from very early on in the track.  It is a driver’s track and that is where experience becomes particularly important.

The next day the ice was carefully inspected again before training by the FIBT officials, team captains, and track crew.  Once again, the ice was deemed too rough to slide on and the session was cancelled.  This raised my discomfort another notch—now there would only be 2 runs of OT before the race!  To me, this was unprecedented.  However, there was nothing I could do about it other than prepare in other ways off ice.  I spent hours watching old World Cup video, poring over track notes, and visualizing my runs.

On Day 3 of OT we finally slid. My two training runs went as well as can be expected.  No matter how much reading or visualization you do, it can never replace actual sliding.  And of course when you imagine what it is like the real thing is usually very different.  I crammed as much learning as I could into each run. As I packed up my equipment at the end of the session I knew I was heading into the race with very little experience and no idea of what to expect on race day.


View from my hotel room.

The ice on our only day of OT was better than the first day of paid training, but it was still bumpy.  Fortunately, for a number of reasons, I seem to have a higher tolerance for rough ice than some athletes.  I don’t often get headaches, confusion, drowsiness, mood alterations, or any other number of symptoms that can comprise “sled head”. However, that doesn’t mean that I don’t notice when the track is rough. And it doesn’t mean that I don’t empathize with athletes who do suffer ill effects.  In fact, I entirely support each athlete’s differing tolerance for ice conditions, whether low or high.  If an athlete feels like the ice is too rough for them then I wholeheartedly believe they should not slide.   As an athlete and as a doctor, if there is doubt about safety, it’s simply not worth the risk.

Two athletes on our team decided not to participate in the race because of the ice conditions.  I admire their strength and courage.  It’s not easy for an athlete to voluntarily pull themselves out of a race where issues such as World rankings, World Cup points, and positions within the team are on the line.  I also am thankful for the support of our coach, Ivo, who 100% supported our decisions to slide or not and was constantly checking in with us to see how things were going.  I also must tip my cap to Bobsled Canada Skeleton who supported our decisions regarding participation in the race. In doing so they underlined how important the issue of head safety is to our organization.

We had a day off before the race, and on that day the men raced.  The race was cancelled after the first run because of poor track conditions.  The officials made the decision that they would evaluate the ice again after the bobsled race in the afternoon and inform us later that evening if the women’s race would proceed or not.  Hanging in limbo, I did my pre-race stim workout and prepped my runners as I would for any race.  But I felt unsettled.  As the evening stretched on, no word came.  I went to bed not knowing if I would race the next morning.

I arrived at the track bright and early the next day and decided that regardless of my lack of training, and uncertainty about the whole situation, I would push it all aside and pull out the best push and best lines I could.  Just as I cracked my pre-race Red Bull forty minutes before the start of the race, however, a ripple of exclamation passed through the start house.  Our race was cancelled.

I felt a strange mixture of emotions.  I was upset that I wouldn’t get a chance to slide La Plagne again and see how well all my preparation had worked.  I also worried about how or if the race would be replaced.  I had heard rumors that potentially an extra race in Igls would be added, which is the track I dislike the most.  On the other hand, I was glad I wasn’t forced to decide on whether or not to slide on a track that could potentially injure myself or my teammates and competitors.  I am glad the decision was taken out of my hands. I am proud that the FIBT, officials, and team captains came together and took a stand to say they did not believe the track conditions were acceptable.  In my years of sliding, I have never seen such a decision taken.  It’s not easy to cancel a World Cup race when all factors are considered.  In the end I think it sets an excellent precedence for sliding in the future.  I hope it means that poor or unsafe track conditions will not be tolerated, and the safety of the athlete will continue to be of paramount importance.

Of course, the race was made up by adding a second race in Igls, but that is another story for another day…


And because of all the cancelled training, I got the opportunity do to a little more sightseeing than normal.  I even got a “private tour” of a medieval castle in the small town of Aime.  And by “private” I mean the lady at the tourist information building gave me the (gigantic) iron key to the door and told me to lock it up afterwards.  Cool, but kind of creepy when I descended alone into the subterranean crypts!





I also got to do some extra lifting in the gym and check out the outdoors push track.  With less than a month until World Champs, any opportunity for more training is welcome.


In closing, it was a challenging week.  But it was also an important week and some big decisions were made.  In this day and age, concussion in sport is a hot topic and for good reason.  I’ll leave you with a link to some quotes from NHL players as well as these quotes about concussion in sport:

“I was well-rounded, I’d been to college. It wasn’t that I couldn’t do anything else. I wanted to stay in sports, but if I couldn’t think, how was I going to play?” – Paul Kariya on worrying about how his brain was functioning while experiencing post-concussion syndrome (Sports Illustrated, Oct 19, 1998)

“I would walk into a room, and he would be crying. He cried a lot. Or he would be holding his head from the migraine headaches. They were terrible. He wouldn’t leave the house for a week. He wouldn’t change his clothes, wouldn’t shower. It was all the classic signs of depression. I thought he was having a nervous breakdown.” — former NHL player Pat LaFontaine’s wife, Marybeth (Sports Illustrated, Dec 1, 1997)



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