Sliders showing improved skills

Corridor athletes are taking to sliding sports, racing and training on Olympic venue

With the Whistler Sliding Centre set to host the best bobsleigh, luge and skeleton athletes in the world throughout the month of February when the 2010 Games come to town, the month of January has been a busy one for talented local sliders.

Racing through a condensed season, most of the young corridor athletes in the B.C. luge program have cracked the 100-kilometre-per-hour mark in their sliding, honed their driving skills and sled mechanics, and raced in two B.C. Cup events in late December and early January.

On Saturday (Jan. 23), the athletes sped through their provincial championships, with Pemberton's Jenna Spencer and Whistler's Reid Watts and Veronica Ravenna emerging victorious in their categories.

Spencer led the Youth B Girls category, racing from the Junior Start position on the fast and technical Whistler track, while Watts topped the Youth C Open category, racing from the Maple Leaf Start, and Ravenna was the Youth C Girls winner sliding from the exit of Corner 11 on the 16-corner track.

Mount Currie's Elainah Andrew was the speedy runner-up to Watts, followed by Whistler's Archie Mahoney in third and Pemberton's Adam Shippit in fourth.

At this age, the young lugers do consistency races in which they're ranked based on the time difference between their runs as a way to reinforce lessons about their techniques and the importance of consistency.

In the B.C. Cup race earlier this month, the five competitors posted times less than one second apart through three runs each, pleasing program coordinator Nicole Simon as she observed them implementing their strategies in run after run.

"It shows that everything we've been working on this year is finally sinking in," she said.

Watts won the Youth B Boys category in that B.C. Cup race, followed by Mahoney and Shippit in second and third, and Ravenna led the Youth B Girls category with Andrew finishing second.

This weekend (Jan. 30 and 31), they're heading off to Calgary for the Canadian Youth Luge Championships.

"I think we'll bring a few medals home," Simon said confidently. That event will wrap things up for the young sliders in this Olympic-shortened season, and they should get back into their dryland training in June.

Last Saturday also featured the B.C. Bobsleigh and Skeleton Championships, starring the athletes who have participated in driving schools at the Whistler Sliding Centre and have been training for three to four times per week since they finished their sliding schooling in early December.

Pemberton's Robb Zirnhelt teamed up with Burnaby's Jeff McCann to win the bobsleigh consistency race, followed by Whistler's Tom Dudley with Burnaby's Tom Crompton in second and Whistler's Mario Chartrand and Francis Chiasson in third.

Whistler's Scott Ballard won the skeleton consistency race, with Burnaby's Sadeed Habib claiming second and Whistler's Carl Rochon whipping into third.

Most of the athletes have gotten into the sports after participating in talent identification camps run by the B.C. Bobsleigh and Skeleton Association.

The young lugers are members of the program that includes nine athletes from Whistler, Pemberton, Mount Currie and Squamish, and they have trained three times per week at the Whistler Sliding Centre this season.

Some of the athletes, such as Pemberton's Kayla and Jenna Spencer, have been sliding for three years now, while Watts, Shippit and Andrew are in their second year of sliding, and Mahoney and Ravenna are new to the program this year.

Overall, Simon said she's pleased with the progress of her rising young lugers. It's been amazing to watch the young lugers' faces when they speed past milestones in their sport, like the first time they crack 100 kilometres per hour in a run, she added.

"They're doing great. They're moving up the track, a lot of them have gone past Maple Leaf Start They've been moving up the track steadily and going faster and faster," Simon said.

This season, she said, the athletes are demonstrating more knowledge of the sport and understanding the mechanics of their sleds better.

"Overall they've all improved a ton this year. It's been really great," Simon said.

Almost all of the program athletes have broken the 100 km/h mark, she said.

The breathtaking speeds and smooth steering sure to be on display in Whistler during the Olympics are expected to lead to even more young athletes expressing interest in the sliding sports. More queries, more recruitment camps and maybe even more sessions at the Whistler track suited to athletes commuting from areas such as Vancouver could follow.

After the 2006 Olympics, Simon said, Canadian luge officials got a lot of phone calls and emails, and the excitement arising from seeing the top athletes in action in Whistler is expected to generate similar interest.

"We're hoping for a huge push in recruitment after the Olympics," Simon said. "After the 2006 Olympics, we recruited a ton of kids."

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