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Renaissance on ice

How the Whistler Sliding Centre and its staff continue to breathe new life into Canadian sliding sports

As much as the Olympic Games are cherished for creating unforgettable moments of athletic triumph, they are also derided for various social, cultural and political reasons. One such reason is the infrastructural detritus that the Games can leave in their wake, as exorbitant venues are inexplicably abandoned after the flame goes out.

Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro. The Hellinikon Olympic Canoe/Kayak Slalom Centre in Athens. Jesse Robinson Olympic Park in Compton, Calif. These are just three examples of formerly majestic arenas that at some point have been allowed to languish in disrepair. It’s wasteful, it’s unfortunate and it generates rightfully negative press. Thankfully, it’s not the whole story. 

A May 2022 report released by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) claims that 85 percent of all permanent venues built since 1896—the beginning of the modern Olympic era—remain in use today. Only 35 out of 817 structures erected from 1896 to 2018 were inactive, abandoned or otherwise closed at the time of the study. 

One of those fortunate 782 is the Whistler Sliding Centre (WSC), which is still going strong 13 years after the Vancouver Olympics. 

Many have never laid eyes on a proper, world-class track before. Fewer still actually envision themselves competing in luge, skeleton or bobsleigh, hurtling down thousands of metres of ice at speeds that would get you arrested were you to drive them on a city road. Sliding athletes understand the risks, and that countless hours of unheralded work are required in exchange for their fleeting moments in the public eye.

They love what they do anyway—and that passion extends to everyone around them.

I’ve covered all three sliding sports during my first few months in Whistler, and it didn’t take long for me to realize that something was different about the community here. Thus, I decided to spend an entire day at the track and see what the fuss is about.

Track prep 101 

My grand tour began courtesy of Robb Zirnhelt, WSC’s track operations manager. The Kamloops native and his crew are responsible for grooming and curating the fastest sliding track on Earth. 

Built from 2005 to 2007, the WSC boasts 1.7 kilometres of icy runway linked to 55 kilometres of power distribution. Its iconic features challenge the world’s best athletes, from the hairpin Lueder’s Loop to the nerve-wracking 50/50 (so called because late American bobsledder Steve Holcomb remarked that one has a 50 per cent chance of wiping out in that section), and of course, the mighty Thunderbird Corner that racers must face at top speed just before the finish. 

When the entire beast is humming, a four-man bobsled and its crew weighing around 635 kilograms can reach 157 kilometres/hour down its length. 

It’s all thanks to gravity—and to the daily toil of people who rarely, if ever, see the spotlight. 

There’s no such thing as “an average day” at WSC because each day could bring new weather patterns, a different sport and a different calibre of athlete. Track crews must be cognizant of all three elements. 

First, let’s talk about weather. Over 600 retractable shades line the track, keeping out unwanted precipitation. If left unchecked, accumulating snow can steal a sled’s velocity and hinder athletes from precise steering, while rain can freeze and make the ice thicker, changing the track’s profile at the entrances and exits of curves. 

The latter can be a major safety risk, as an elevated curve essentially reduces the height of the sidewall and can launch sleds out of the track when they are moving at high speeds.

An equally big problem, surprisingly enough, is sunlight. 

Abundant sunshine is the ideal condition for numerous sports, but not for sliding. Why is that? Well, the sun can easily warm up the concrete base of the track, causing ice to delaminate and fall off in large pieces.

“No matter how much refrigeration we crank through it, we can’t beat the sun,” Zirnhelt said. 

That’s why most of the track’s shades are extended on sunny days. Coaches may request that some sections be made viewable so they can record their athletes’ performances, but WSC staff must ultimately prioritize the integrity of the race surface. 

Plus, luge and skeleton sleds generate less wear and tear than do heavy bobsleds, especially the four-man vehicles previously alluded to. As a result, track crews need to maintain the ice more frequently during bobsled events. Different athletes slide through different portions of the track, too: youth typically only use half the available racecourse or so, while national team bobsledders and skeleton racers begin from the very top. 

Zirnhelt and his crew employ an arsenal of tools in their daily duties. Hoses are used to spray—or spritz—the ice with water, building thickness and repairing damage caused by sleds. At the beginning of each winter, a group of 10 to 15 individuals spritz bare concrete for up to 10 days, building approximately two to five centimetres of ice and molding it into an elite race surface. 

Spritzing isn’t done every day during the season, especially during cold snaps, but experienced crew members can get the job done in about 20 minutes during International Luge Federation (FIL) or International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation (IBSF) World Cup events if need be. 

While some man the hoses, others wield custom-made scraper blades to shave off excess frost and tailor the ice’s profile in desired ways. Snow created as a byproduct of the scraping process is swept up with brooms and dumped outside the track with shovels. 

Any local knows how cold a Whistler winter day can feel, yet track crews almost never wear heavy coats to work. Instead they are dressed in hoodies, sweaters and sometimes even T-shirts to go with their rugged pants and crampon-equipped boots—and are nonetheless drenched in sweat every day.

Trust me: ice-scraping is serious business. Crew supervisor Mike Lambert tried to teach me a few techniques, but as someone who isn’t used to manual labour, I struggled to get through five consecutive reps without fatiguing. That’s when I realized that Lambert and his men do not need gym memberships at all—they get more than enough exercise at work. 

“If you’ve got a toque, a puffy coat and two hoodies on, you’re not working hard enough,” Lambert remarked. 

Command and control

Any legitimate sliding venue, like any legitimate airport, has a control tower. The WSC’s is located next to the finish line: an angular silver building with generously-sized windows and a roomy interior. Passers-by would likely take notice of the structure, but there’s no way to tell from the outside just how vital it is to everyday track operations.

Inside the tower, one will find a collection of six monitors at the primary workstation—a setup that might make PC gamers a little jealous. Four of the monitors are each divided into nine separate camera feeds that give the tower operator a comprehensive view of the track. The other two screens display statistical information about the athletes of any given session.

Brad Bailey and Emily Nichols are two of the WSC’s control and timing supervisors. Bailey has spent 13 seasons in the role, while Nichols has just over two years under her belt. The local sliding community is well-acquainted with their crisp, clear voices over the facility’s PA system. 

Unlike announcers at a professional or collegiate sports game, Bailey and Nichols aren’t there to hype up the crowd. Their job is to let everyone know exactly what is happening at any given moment. 

Bailey was in the tower on the day of my visit. I stood next to him for a few minutes to watch him work. 

“Clear for Vincent from Maple Leaf [start],” he announced during a training session for youth lugers. Then he pointed out one of the camera feeds to me, where a young man sat on his sled. “That’s him at Maple Leaf, getting ready.”

About one second later, Vincent launched himself down the ramp, and Bailey called it without skipping a beat: “Athlete’s ready, luge in track, Maple Leaf.” His words were heard over the PA system and on the two-way radios carried by staff members. 

It appears to be a simple job, but things get much busier when the FIL or IBSF World Cups come to town. Bailey and Nichols are practiced at digesting and disseminating information, and their skills are vital when hundreds of athletes, coaches, broadcasters and reporters are at the track.

“It is a lot of people you have to communicate with, so it is a balance, trying to make sure everybody’s on the same page,” Nichols said. 

Unlike many lower-level races, the World Cup circuit is usually broadcasted or streamed. This adds an extra layer to the control tower’s job: pacing. FIL and IBSF organizers set a fixed amount of time—say, 90 seconds—between sleds at each race to let broadcasters know how long they have to deliver commentary, replays and advertisements. 

To manage such a pace, Nichols and Bailey often work together at major competitions. One will act as PA announcer and control the facility’s Olympic-calibre timing system, while the other communicates with race officials and broadcasters. Sometimes, the tower will accommodate a third staff member to help shoulder the load. 

“The control tower is the main point of contact for everything,” said Nichols. “[In case of an incident], track workers are letting us know how long they need to make sure the track is good to go again, medics are telling us how long they need to make sure the athletes are okay, and then we have to communicate to broadcasters how much time they need to fill in, before we’re able to get back [to action].

“It’s a very tight ship that runs during the World Cup.” 

Later in my visit, a bobsled hurtled past me—on its side. Most crashes aren’t serious, but needless to say, they are unpleasant for those involved. Track medics stand by at all times, ready to respond the moment a sled overturns. 

Safety first

I attended my first race, a North American Cup event, in November of 2022. At that point, I was new to covering bobsleigh and skeleton—in fact, new to Whistler in general. Despite being armed with a modicum of sliding-sport knowledge thanks to my passionate love of the Olympics, I wasn’t sure what to expect. 

When I laid eyes on a group of medics that day, wearing black jackets marked with white crosses, I assumed that they were just there to keep everyone safe. I wasn’t expecting them to actually talk to me. I definitely wasn’t expecting them to invite me out to High Mountain Brewing Co. with them later that week. 

It was there, over drinks and wings that I first learned how much most medics care about the athletes they watch over.

“We put in an awful lot of work in support of athletes on our track, day in and day out,” said head medic Nelson Dow. “To know that they appreciate that work, and that they value how it contributes to them reaching their goals, is really special. We get to know some of these athletes closely, and our hearts are in it just as much as theirs are.”

Originally from Ontario, Dow and his wife landed in the Sea to Sky region in the late-2000s to support the Vancouver Olympics. Dow once worked the ski jumps at Whistler Olympic Park (WOP), but these days he splits his time between Callaghan Valley and the WSC. 

The medics often help Zirnhelt’s gang with morning preparations. They, like the track crew, need to know which athletes are using the facilities on any given day. 

“A part of why it’s fun to work at [the WSC] is that every day is a little bit different,” said Brittani Schick, a Manitoba native serving in her fourth season as a medic. “The positioning of our emergency transit vehicle around the track is important, because each sport has a different crash zone. For a quick example, our skeleton crashes are often more in corners six and seven, bobsled would be corner 13 and then luge is in the lower half of the track.” 

Despite the high-octane nature of any sliding sport, crashes do not occur as often as one might fear. New athletes usually begin from the aforementioned Maple Leaf start area located about halfway down the track. Coaches ensure that no one progresses further up the course—and to higher top speeds—until they have mastered the fundamentals of their chosen discipline. 

“There’s potential that things can get bad, obviously, but that’s like anything in life. Driving a car, nobody thinks about the dangers in that,” remarked Zach Choboter from Aldergrove, B.C., who was hired as a track worker in 2019 before transitioning to the role of medic last October. “A lot of people think these sports are super dangerous…but I have to tell them that I’m like a glorified Band-Aid putter-onner.” 

Tongue-in-cheek modesty aside, medics do a lot more than sit around waiting for accidents to happen. For instance, they also perform sled arrests, which can be necessary when a younger athlete beginning their run from a lower start point fails to generate enough velocity to clear the steep, uphill braking area—or outrun—located immediately after the finish line. 

Medics stand by at the outrun with long hooks to arrest stalled sleds and prevent them from moving back down towards the finish. It’s a simple but necessary task to prevent avoidable delays. Once the athlete is clear, medics bring the vacant sled onto level ground, where it is removed from the track manually or via crane. 

Now, accidents can and do still occur. Even veteran sliders may crash in their quest for gold, in which case medics react immediately to secure the downed athlete and his or her sled. Most are able to walk away from their mishaps, but lugers and skeleton racers tend to be more vulnerable than bobsledders, who have a much more substantial vehicle to protect them from impact. 

Jaxon Craig knows firsthand how it feels to wipe out. The Vancouverite has been a track medic since 2021, but was inspired late last year to take up bobsledding himself via the WSC’s in-house BC Sliding Development Centre (SDC). 

“Having been involved in a number of crashes this year already, I’ve definitely felt the ice burn,” Craig admitted. “I can only imagine what it’s like when you’re going an extra 20 kilometers an hour faster [than I was].” 

Once in a blue moon, something truly unexpected happens. Take for instance the IBSF World Cup season opener on Nov. 26, 2022, where a four-man bobsled driven by Olympic bronze medallist Christoph Hafer experienced brake failure. The massive German vehicle rumbled all the way up the outrun and past the finish dock before burying its nose into a parking lot at the very end of the track. 

“It’s really important [during an unusual incident] for track medical responders to stop, assess and plan so that we’re not running into situations without ensuring our own personal safety—or contributing more chaos,” Dow explained. “[When Hafer’s sled crashed], we slowed down, caught our breath and started to assess the situation from a broader perspective before moving in. Nobody was injured, and it was mostly kind of a chaotic scene.” 

Belly of the beast

Of course, the combined efforts of track workers, control tower operators and medics would amount to very little without a healthy dose of remarkable engineering. 

Fueling the ice upon which sliding sports rely are over 100 kilometres of refrigeration piping linked to a 600 000-litre water reservoir. Engineers preside over this setup to help the track maintain its shape and integrity.

“We couldn’t do our job without the track crew, and the track crew couldn’t do their job without us,” said chief engineer Glenn West. 

Engineering personnel are on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week throughout the winter. They monitor the outside temperature, relative humidity and dew point on a daily basis in shifts. Engineers also drive around to observe ice conditions before comparing notes with Zirnhelt’s track crew and deciding how to approach each day. 

When they’re not out and about, West and his colleagues keep watch from the on-site refrigeration plant—their own control tower, if you will—to manage the amount of refrigerant being delivered to the track via four large compressors and more than 80 valve stations. Each station must be set manually in response to changing weather conditions. 

Refrigerant, meanwhile, is a chemical that regulates temperature by absorbing heat from one area and bringing it to another area to dissipate. In the process, a mixture of liquid and vapour chemical returns to the plant, where it is changed back into liquid and recycled out to the track.

Additionally, the WSC is equipped with a heat reclamation system that harnesses any heat lost on track to warm up buildings like the guest services centre and the refrigeration plant itself. 

A layperson might assume that West and his peers are trying to keep the ice as cold as possible, but that’s not the case. Too much refrigerant relative to outside humidity levels can generate excess frost, which would then have to be scraped off by track workers to maximize athlete performance. On the other hand, not enough refrigerant could cause sections of ice to melt, particularly on sunnier days. 

When West began working at the WSC, he was well-versed in the technical aspects of the facility’s refrigeration cycle—not so much in the physical and mental attributes of elite sliders. That began to change once he and his fiancée got their first taste of public bobsled: a tourist-friendly jaunt down the track that is consistently one of the WSC’s most popular offerings.

“The next time we watched the Olympics, we all became professionals,” West recalled with a laugh. “We became the biggest critics ever from the couch…but it gives you a huge appreciation of what those guys do, the way they train, the meticulous corners. It’s incredible what they do.”  

West and his team don’t just show up to collect paychecks—they take pride in maintaining the greatest race surface that WSC visitors have ever experienced. Above all, it’s the joy that kids express after watching top Canadian sliders race or train that never gets old. 

“I joke with [our young athletes] out and about that I can’t wait to see them at the next Olympics,” West said. 

A tightly-knit cadre 

Sliding athletes can be nearly as unheralded as the track workers, medics and engineers who make their pursuits possible. After all, lugers, bobsledders and skeleton racers spend hundreds of hours maintaining equipment and pushing themselves in training runs that no one except their coaches and teammates will likely ever watch. 

And when they do compete, the differences between a gold-medal run and a 10th-place effort are often imperceptible to the untrained eye. 

“The spotlight is on us for such a small portion of our careers, whether it’s at a World Championship, or a local World Cup, or the Olympic Games,” said four-time Olympic bobsledder Chris Spring. “Many people don’t see the hours, the days, the years of dedication [we put in], and they might not even see the athletes that didn’t make it. 

“They don’t know their stories and the amount of sacrifice that they’ve gone through to try and compete at that highest level.” 

Spring remembers his first World Cup race in Whistler vividly. It was 2009 and he was still representing his native Australia. That year, the brand-new WSC was big, bright, sexy and overwhelming—elite in every way. 

Since then, Spring’s become a Canadian citizen, added four top-10 Olympic results to his resume and begun to coach the sport that he’s given his life to. He’s mentored a number of bobsled newbies who initially struggled, but refused to give up. Now, some of them are capable of runs that Spring is extremely proud of, and it’s been eye-opening for him to witness their resilience. 

He’s not the only one who’s been witnessing it, either. WSC staff members ooze enthusiasm for the racers they support. 

“Recently, I had a couple of athletes take their first runs from the very top of the track,” Spring said. “Every time they progress to a new start height, it’s a big milestone…and when they got to the bottom, the cheers from the track crew and the medics and from everyone there? That’s the community the Whistler Sliding Centre has.” 

Track work can feel thankless at times. Days are short, cold and dark through the heart of winter, and World Cup athletes can scarcely afford to pay staff members much attention when medals are at stake. Nonetheless, WSC personnel find gratification within themselves to operate one of the best sliding facilities on Earth. 

Their efforts do not, and have never, gone unappreciated.

“We get to see all the tracks in the world, pretty much, and nothing really compares to the work that’s done here in Whistler, and all the people that are just caring about it so much,” said Pembertonian Trinity Ellis, a member of Luge Canada’s national “A” team. 

“The track crew and medics are all so personable. They know all of our names, and they know some of our stories,” added Ellis’ teammate Caitlin Nash, a Whistlerite and one of the first women’s doubles medallists in Canadian history. “Especially within such a small sport, it’s really cool that we get to experience that sense of community with these people, because nobody’s making them [show up to work]. 

“They do it out of the kindness of their own hearts, and because they love their jobs.” 

‘Everybody’s cheering’

With the track at WinSport Olympic Park in Calgary out of action since 2019, Whistler has become Canada’s lone hub for luge, skeleton and bobsleigh. The future development of Canadian sliding will likely be inseparably tied to the WSC. It’s no light burden, but one that the facility and its personnel are prepared to bear.

Indeed, by showing up each day with a positive attitude and a tradition of excellence, WSC coaches and staff have contributed to the Canadian sliding pipeline by helping to win over the parents of prospective athletes. 

Stacey Spence is not your typical Sea to Sky mom. Three of her kids are sliders: her oldest son, Connor, drives bobsleds, her eldest daughter, Payton, is a skeleton racer and her youngest girl, Allie, competes in luge. 

Why is Spence so comfortable with watching her children fly around at breakneck speeds? It has a lot to do with the people surrounding them. 

“It just seems like everybody enjoys what they’re doing [at the WSC],” she said. “They’re great with the kids. It’s track workers, it’s coaches, everybody comes together. I can spend 14-hour days on track and say I had a great day. 

“The kids have such a great rapport with the medics. They have secret handshakes, and they have high fives, and everybody’s cheering.” 

Likewise, Karen Lara was impressed by the WSC’s commitment to professionalism. Her daughter, Tirza, was hooked on skeleton after day one—so much that she wanted to move to the Sea to Sky as a 16-year-old and jump start her career. Karen gave Tirza her blessing to do so, in large part because she trusted that her daughter would be safe. 

“Having not come from a sliding sports background, I appreciated the progression approach that the WSC took,” explained Karen. “In other words, I felt more confident with Tirza’s ability to drive as she continually learned new skills and built run volume, starting at the lower corners and gradually moving up the track. 

“The move to Whistler to train happened quite quickly, from Tirza trying out skeleton in January 2018 to living in Whistler full-time in June 2018. However, Tirza has always been an independent and self-motivated person, so she’s managed this really well.”

That’s an understatement. Tirza Lara is now part of the Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton (BCS) NextGen roster and showed her potential with a 14th-place result at her inaugural Junior World Championships.

Every slider in Canada wants to see the Calgary track back up and running, though that may or may not ever happen. Regardless, we are blessed to have the WSC: a community that embodies the ideals of becoming faster, higher and stronger—and doing it all together. 

“When I was a kid, to be an Olympian seemed almost supernatural because it was such a great feat for any athlete to accomplish,” Spring remembers. “And I didn’t really get exposure to Olympic athletes or venues where I lived growing up.

“To have the Olympic spirit alive and well within the WSC can, I think, continue to inspire the next generation of athletes. That’s not just in the sports of bobsleigh, skeleton and luge, but in any Olympic sport.”