Reid Watts exploded through his pair of runs en route to a bronze medal at the Youth Olympic Games in Lillehammer on Feb. 14.
But a footwear explosion held the Whistler luger back in his first run and left him wondering what more could have been. In the end, Watts ended up 0.685 seconds back of winner Kristers Aparjods of Latvia and just 0.039 seconds back of Germany's Paul-Lukas Heider for silver.
"I had a little bit of a technical difficulty on the first run. When they cleared the track for me, I had 30 seconds to go. But my luge booty, the zipper on it exploded so I had a not-very-aerodynamic shoe going down for the first run," he said. "I just had to go and do the best run I could. I knew that the jump from fifth, where I was sitting, to the podium was really close. I knew that with a functioning booty and a really good run again, I could move up to the podium and where I wanted to be."
The zipper busting didn't inflict any pain on Watts, but he explained he could feel an air pocket forming and slowing him down slightly in a sport where hundredths of a second are integral. He said it's a rare occurrence for a wardrobe malfunction like that, but he's heard of it happening before.
"It almost felt like a bit of a game over at the time. There was nothing I could do about it — I couldn't change it, couldn't stop and get another one before (the race). It was something I had to deal with, mentally overcome and sure enough, I had a good run with a competitive and aerodynamic disadvantage," he said.
Watts, 17, crashed out at last year's Junior World Championships at the Norwegian track, but tried to not let that weigh on his mind heading into the Youth Olympics. His strong preparation helped it dissipate, while starting from a lower height and prime track conditions made it ideal for a much-improved result.
"I had a really solid week of training. All of last year was just thrown in the garbage. I had to deal with it and get over it," he said. "It was good to get back to it."
Additionally, Watts had recently been competing and training with Canada's senior program, which he said helped him prepare for the big Norwegian stage.
"When I was with the senior circuit, we had also very limited runs, and much more challenging tracks from the top," he said. "We also have a very limited amount of runs on the easier track from the lower youth start, so it wasn't that bad. Being on the senior team really taught me well."
With his events being early on in the Youth Olympics, Watts had to shun the Games' glitz and glamour in favour of training and resting. However, after helping Team Canada to a fourth-place finish in the relay on Feb. 16, his competitive schedule wrapped up. With five days of competition remaining, he and his teammates were set to fully soak up the Olympic atmosphere.
"It's awesome, but it's a little bit distracting too, which you have to overcome because you have to compete," Watts said. "Now that it's all over and I still have quite a few more days of this, I'm going to go out and take advantage."
It was a successful week for Canadian lugers, as Calgary's Brooke Apshkrum won gold in the women's event. Though the duo of Pemberton's Adam Shippit and Whistler's Matt Riddle didn't end up snagging a medal to bring home, the first-year pairing still put up a fifth-place performance. The team was a combined 1.695 seconds back of winners Felix Schwarz and Lukas Gufler of Italy.
In the team relay, Watts, Apshkrum, Riddle and Shippit were a combined 1.029 seconds back of the winning German team and 0.509 seconds off the podium.
"So close," Watts said. "It stings a little bit, for sure."
Riddle and Shippit score fifth-place showing
Watts wasn't the only luger entering Lillehammer with some uncertainty, as Riddle didn't finish the second doubles run with Watts on his sled at last year's Junior Worlds. But competing this year with new partner Shippit, he felt confident and was pleased with his showing.
"Last year, it wasn't great for me, so it was good to come and get some consistent runs with Adam, especially being a fairly new team together," he said. "It was nice to get on a track that was familiar on the doubles sled. Last week, we were in Winterberg and we weren't having too great of a time because it's a bit challenging for us. It was good to come here and start sliding well again and have a good time."
Shippit was the FIL youth A singles champion last year, but opted to essentially switch spots with Watts, who, with Riddle, was the doubles champion in the same age group.
"Since I'm shorter and smaller than the other competitors, I wasn't really competitive at the next stage in the singles competition. But I had the right capability to become the bottom man and it's really paid off in its own way," Shippit said. "(As a bottom man), you do less driving and focus more on making sure on making sure the sled is smooth going off and on the corners and helping out Matt when he needs it.
"It's definitely a different role than having all the responsibilities on one person. It's now divided by two."
Shippit acknowledged it's taken a little while to get on the same page, but he and Riddle are starting to work as one.
"It was a confirmation that we're heading in the right direction with how little training we've had together as a team," Shippit said. "It's really nice to know that we're heading down the right path and we're starting to communicate on and off the sled."
Riddle agreed it's been different for him getting used to a new teammate, but it's slowly but surely starting to work well.
"Reid and Adam definitely have different body types, so when it came to sliding together, it took Adam and I a couple runs to really get the hang of it," he said. "We stayed in Whistler to mesh a little bit and we started sliding better and working better. It's been improving ever since we became a team."
Riddle knows that becoming a force to be reckoned with on the world stage is a process, but knows he and Shippit are determined to achieve greatness.
"It's something that's not going to be great right away. It's something we're going to have to work on, but I see us having great potential in the future if we just keep working at it," he said. "If we can just keep going, we can be on the podium with Brooke and Reid in the near future."
Other Sea to Sky athletes perform well
Two other Whistler lugers competed at the event. In the women's race, Veronica Ravenna was seventh representing Argentina and in the men's race, Lucas Gebauer-Barrett was 10th while wearing Great Britain's colours.
Meanwhile, freestyle skier Mackenzie Wilson placed fifth in the halfpipe in her return from injury. Wilson posted a best score of 62.20 while winner Madison Rowlands of Great Britain topped all comers with a dominating 88.60.
Vancouver's Annika Richardson, a regular at Whistler Olympic Park, placed 25th overall in the women's 1.5-kilometre cross-country free ski race on Feb. 13 and 33rd in the 1.3-kilometre sprint on Feb. 16. The five-kilometre free race is up on Feb. 18.
As well, mono-bobsleigh athlete Parker Reid will race on Saturday, Feb. 20.
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