Tristan Walker knows a thing or two about flying.
After all, he’s spent 21 years on luge sleds, fighting for every thousandth of a second on manicured icy tracks all over the globe. He and longtime doubles partner Justin Snith once raced against the world’s elite each year, hitting speeds of more than 140 kilometres per hour. Walker and Snith are undoubtedly Canada’s most accomplished doubles luge team, with an Olympic silver and four World Championships medals to show for their dedication.
Now 31 years of age, the two hung up their spiked gloves with one final ride last December at the Whistler Sliding Centre (WSC), the site of their first Olympic experience all the way back in 2010.
The Calgary, Alta. native has begun his next chapter in life: a move to Whistler and a career as a helicopter pilot.
“I want to give the same level of dedication that I put into my athletic career into my next career in aviation,” Walker said. “I want to continue to be a student. A 100-hour pilot knows nothing. You know just enough to be dangerous because someone will let you fly a helicopter, maybe.”
Cleared for takeoff
Lifelong luger he may be, but Walker is also the grandson of Len Bolger, a former Royal Canadian Air Force pilot involved in the research, development and testing of supersonic fighter jets on home soil—including the ill-fated Avro Arrow. In a different life, Walker might have joined the Air Force right out of high school and earned his way up to flying CF-188 Hornets out of Cold Lake or Bagotville.
Yet in this universe, Walker became a four-time Olympian who helped teammates Snith, Alex Gough and Sam Edney win silver at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games. That breakthrough in the mixed team relay was just the second piece of Olympic hardware in Luge Canada’s history—the first being Gough’s individual bronze, also earned in PyeongChang. Afterwards, Walker realized that his chance to break the sound barrier from the cockpit of a Hornet had passed him by. He was too old, and didn’t have the university degree needed to become an officer, and in turn, a fighter pilot.
Flying commercial airliners would have been lucrative, but Walker was disinterested in being “stuck in a metal tube for eight hours at a time in a machine that mostly flies itself” nowadays. That’s why he chose instead to be a helicopter pilot.
“Helicopters are hands-on. You’re a proper aviator, and you’re flying the thing the entire time,” he said. “And it’s the type of work [that lets you stay] in the mountains, which is one of the things I really want to do.”
Walker unofficially retired immediately after the Beijing Winter Olympics and started his commercial helicopter training program last May in Abbotsford. He also reached out to Blackcomb Helicopters via some connections in the luge community, visiting the company’s base in Whistler last summer.
“Whistler has always had a special place in my heart, and I’d love to be able to start my next career in a place that means so much to me,” said Walker.
Clearly, Blackcomb Helicopters was interested, as Walker was offered a job working ground crew during the current heli-skiing season. It’s not a full-time gig, but the veteran luger is grateful for an opportunity to get his foot in the door.
Walker’s ultimate goal is to use his piloting career to help people. For that reason, he is attracted to a company like Blackcomb Helicopters, which offers a myriad of services from heli-skiing and sightseeing to construction, firefighting, medevac and search-and-rescue.
“Everything you need a helicopter for in the Sea to Sky corridor, they will do all of those things,” he remarked.
Having moved to Whistler in early December 2022, Walker plans to do a lot more than just service choppers and fly. He wants to have at least one year as a “ski bum” after being consistently discouraged from potentially risky hobbies during his luge career. By his own admission, he has skied more in the past month then he did in the preceding decade. It’s been quite a change of pace, so far.
A luger’s life for me
Walker commenced his luge journey at 10 years of age. He knows Whistler’s track—the fastest of its kind on Earth—as well as anyone, having trained or competed on it for at least a few weeks every year since the venue first opened in 2008. Having begun sliding two years earlier than Snith did, Walker was on the national development team when Snith picked up luge.
Developmental athletes normally help coaches run recruitment camps, and Walker happened to be working at the camp that recruited Snith to the novice team.
Their partnership “clicked from the very beginning.” The Calgarians synergized very well on-track, with Walker known for his powerful start and Snith for his feathery touch in steering the sled with his shoulders. They found immediate success as a pair, winning one bronze at their first career junior World Cup event and another at the 2009 Junior World Championships.
A year later, Walker and Snith placed 15th at their inaugural Olympics. They were 18 years old, the youngest doubles team in Vancouver 2010.
In 2014, coming off a World Championships silver medal the previous year, Canada’s lead duo barely missed the podium—twice—at the Sochi Olympics. Walker and Snith were just five-hundredths of a second away from bronze in doubles, and also finished fourth in team relay alongside Gough and Edney.
Those five-hundredths of a second haunted Walker until he learned to channel his energy into motivation for training instead of stress. Lugers, unlike bobsledders and skeleton racers, are timed down to one one-thousandth of a second, and sometimes it is humanly impossible to avoid the kinds of minute mistakes that can keep one off the podium. Therefore, it is paramount to focus on what you can control.
“When you put [your focus] into training, it eases your mind on race day, because you can sit in the handles and say: ‘I spent the entire summer being a good athlete, training as hard as I could, and it gave me the best chance to have a good result on this day,’” Walker said.
Despite mulling retirement after PyeongChang 2018, Walker and Snith chose to return for one more quadrennial. They gave “absolutely everything they could’’ to try for another Olympic medal in Beijing last February, but ended up seventh in doubles and sixth in team relay. At that point, both knew that it was time to step away from competitive luge.
“Because we knew that we put in everything that we possibly had to [race in Beijing], that was enough to be like, yeah, this is a good time to wrap it up,” Walker said.
Make no mistake, though—he isn’t done with sliding. In addition to his Blackcomb Helicopters job, Walker has joined fellow Canadian luger Reid Watts and four-time Olympic bobsledder Chris Spring as passenger bobsled pilots who drive guests down the world’s fastest ice at WSC. Walker has (very tentatively) toyed with the idea of packing on more muscle to pursue bobsled competitively, but in his words, that’s a “really, really hard ‘maybe.’”
Above all, he takes heart knowing that the future of Luge Canada is in good hands with Devin Wardrope and Cole Zajanski, the young Calgarians who nearly usurped him and Snith as the Canadian doubles team in Beijing. The women are also well-represented by Sea to Sky locals Trinity Ellis, Caitlin Nash and Natalie Corless, among others, and the team remains as closely-knit as it was during Walker’s prime.
“We’re like a little family that travels the world together, and so, being able to see our teammates succeed and know that they’re cheering us on as well just really boosts the mood,” said Nash on Dec. 10 after a World Cup event in Whistler.
“That [kind of camaraderie] is something that I really hope continues, because it’s something that Justin and I really wanted to leave behind, culture-wise,” Walker said. “You’re racing against your teammates quite often in a sport like luge, but … it just elevates everybody when you have a good team dynamic.
“And [Nash] is right: it’s like a family.”