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Rookies help Canada to medal

Kindl and Geisenberger capture singles races; Eggert and Benecken top doubles event at FIL World Cup

The future of Canadian luging ripped into the present at the Whistler Sliding Centre on Dec. 1.

Two of Canada's up-and-coming lugers, Reid Watts and Kyla Graham, helped secure a third-place finish in the relay event at the Viessmann Luge World Cup.

Coming off of mixed individual performances earlier in the festival, the duo combined with doubles veterans Tristan Walker and Justin Snith to finish 0.209 seconds back of the Russian team. The Germans took second.

The relay was the first for both Watts and Graham at the World Cup level, and resulted in their first-ever medals on tour.

"This is awesome, especially after yesterday (the singles event in which he placed 22nd). That was an up-and-down race, for sure," Watts said. "That was a disaster, to be completely honest, but I just had a good night, regrouped, and I was really happy with the way things went."

After a strong first run in Friday night's singles race left him in striking distance of a career-best result, Watts struggled on his second run to finish back in the pack. To medal at home provided a measure of redemption for the 19-year-old.

"Today, I knew that if I just lowered the expectations in my head and just focused on the basics, that's what would get me down the hill well. I just had fun with it. We had a good team of Kyla, Tristan and Justin and everything just worked out well," he said.

For Graham, it was just her second World Cup race after she debuted at Igls, Austria last week. She was thrilled to have made it on the podium so soon, especially in an event that naturally has a little extra pressure.

"It's pretty incredible to have a medal from that," she said. "You want to do well for your teammates and yourselves. I just went out there and chilled out on the track. I had a pretty good run."

Like Watts, she was glad to have an opportunity to leave Whistler and head to next weekend's Calgary World Cup on a high note after her singles event earlier in the morning, where she took 18th.

"I could have been happier but I'm still not upset. My first run, I had a bit of a skid in (Corner) 12 as well as 16, which brings down your time. But my second run was one of the best I had all week, so I was really happy with that," she said.

Of the four World Cup races this weekend, the relay was the only one in which the existing track record did not fall, as the Russians' winning time of two minutes, 4.124 seconds (2:04.124) was slightly slower than the Germans' 2:03.826 set in 2013.

Sprint world champ Kindl victorious in men's event

Austrian Wolfgang Kindl is, admittedly, at a disadvantage when the World Cup comes to Whistler.

Hindered by start times in the lower half of the pack, Kindl still managed to post the best times in both runs en route to victory on Nov. 30. Kindl's two-run time of one minute, 39.774 seconds (1:39.774) bested German Felix Loch by 0.099 seconds and fellow Austrian Reinhard Egger by 0.127 seconds.

The defending sprint world champion said his strategy is to keep the gaps between the field and himself minimal out of the gate so he can quickly play catch-up.

"It's not easy, because I'm not the fastest starter," he said. "I know that I'm really fast in the flats because I'm aerodynamic (in that section)."

On a day when track records were smashed—19 of the race's 64 runs were quicker than the previous best—Kindl's first-run of 49.837 is the new standard.

"To get the track record was nice," he said. "I didn't really expect it because of the fog today, but the track was really good until the end."

In addition to Watts, Whistler's Matt Riddle also raced, finishing 25th in his World Cup singles debut.

"Being at home was a little bit of stress, but it was just nice (too)," he said. "During the week, my runs weren't as nice as I wanted them to be, but for the race, I just put that aside and thought, 'You've slid this track a bunch. You've slid it before. You can do it for the race.'

"I'm satisfied with my runs, as they were two of the best runs I had all week, but I wasn't that happy with my starts because they weren't quite there and I know I can do better."Riddle explained his biggest takeaway was that at the World Cup level, any home-track advantage he may have previously enjoyed was negated by the veterans' skill and experience.

"Your competition is also training just as hard as you are and they're there to do the same thing as you. It was an eye opener," he said.

Geisenberger claims win in women's singles

Germany's Natalie Geisenberger took a rare second-place finish behind Canadian star Alex Gough the last time she competed on the Viessmann Luge World Cup tour at Whistler Sliding Centre in 2016.

But in a return engagement on Dec. 1, the German legend returned to the top spot, putting up the best time in both runs—setting new track records in the process.

Geisenberger put up a two-run time of 1:16.904 as she got past fellow German Julia Taubitz by 0.291 seconds and American Emily Sweeney by 0.417 seconds. The race was Sweeney's first since a crash at the Winter Olympic Games in South Korea in February.

On a bright, sunny day, Geisenberger dominated all the way through the track, putting up the second-best start in both runs and then leading from that point on.

"It was a great day for me. I had two great starts, two great runs. It's so much fun to slide in this weather in Whistler here, it's almost perfect," she said.

The track was once again running fast, as 26 of the 56 total runs were quicker than Gough's previous top run of 38.796. Geisenberger's new mark raised the bar to 38.394 seconds.

"Looking at the time after the second run, I was like, 'Oh wow, that was really fast!'" she said. "These were perfect conditions for good sliding."

With vastly different conditions each time, Geisenberger said it's impossible to compare her run from two years ago to what she accomplished this time around.

"I don't think you really can compare the two races, because it's always different conditions," she said. "We will see what happens in the future. Maybe it's getting a little bit faster in the next few years."

Graham was the top Canadian, finishing 18th, while Makena Hodgson was 19th, Carolyn Maxwell was 21st and Brooke Apshkrum was 24th. Local Veronica Ravenna, who represents Argentina, ended up in 25th.

Eggert, Benecken top doubles race

Even the best need a little luck sometimes.

Defending world champions Toni Eggert and Sascha Benecken of Germany weren't entirely enthused on their runs during doubles action on Friday afternoon, but the duo still managed to come away with the win with a time of 1:16.691.

"It was not an easy race," Eggert said, citing the close times between the final finishers. "In our second run, in the exit of 16, we had a knock ... today, we had luck on our side."

As part of a German podium sweep, Robin Johannes Geueke and David Gamm (0.019 seconds back) took second and Tobias Wendl and Tobias Arlt (0.029 back) were third. Wendl and Arlt set the new track record in their second run with a time of 38.292 seconds.

While Eggert and Benecken were relatively consistent, the team they were chasing after the first run—Austria's Thomas Steu and Lorenz Koller—dropped all the way off the podium into fourth.

"We were really motivated, because we had a not-perfect run in the first run. We know we were maximum motivated to fly down," Eggert said. "The other guys also had a mistake and we are first."

Canadians Tristan Walker and Justin Snith were disappointed with a fifth-place finish, 0.184 seconds back, which Walker attributed in part to a spike from his glove snapping off as they were getting set to launch their first run, which was a major drain on their time.

"When you look at those times, 18 hundredths from fifth place to the gold medal, we know we had over a tenth of mistakes in our first run, for sure," Walker said. "There was an equipment malfunction. That happens every once in awhile and there's not really a lot you can do about that.

"There was also a small driving error at the bottom."

In coming races, Walker said he and Snith would draw on the improvements they made in Run 2, as a carbon copy of it would have established them as contenders.

"That one really showed that we can be in the running for medals, for sure," he said.