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Sliding programs picking up speed

This weekend the Whistler Sliding Centre will host the first of two B.C. Cup races with developing athletes in luge, skeleton and bobsleigh all competing.

This weekend the Whistler Sliding Centre will host the first of two B.C. Cup races with developing athletes in luge, skeleton and bobsleigh all competing. For some it will be a first, while others have been training and competing for four seasons, since the first coached programs were offered on the Olympic track.

It's still early days for the programs, but there is already a 10-member luge team, 15 skeleton athletes and 10 bobsleigh drivers training at the track up to five times per week. Recruitment is still continuing for all three sliding sports and there are several more luge camps and pilot camps scheduled this winter.

"It takes a few years," said Nicole Simon Zirnhelt, who is coordinating the development programs at Whistler Sliding Centre. "All of our luge athletes will be competing at the junior nationals for the first time this year and one girl had the opportunity to participate in the junior team selection. She didn't make it, but finally getting the chance to participate in that selection process is a huge step for her and she'll be making it onto that team in the next couple of years."

The girl in question is just 14, and has five years of eligibility as a junior remaining.

Luge generally recruits younger athletes. Luge recruitment camps are open to kids aged eight to 14. Skeleton and bobsleigh athletes are recruited from ages 14 to 26, although the Whistler Sliding Centre also has a few recreational skeleton athletes who are older than 26.

Luge camps cost $30 each and run for three hours. Participants get some instruction on how the luges work, then spend the rest of the time making runs on the lower part of the track. The remaining dates are Jan. 23, Feb. 20 and March 6. You can register online at, or request more information by contacting Simon Zirnhelt at

No dates have been set but there should also be two driving courses this year for skeleton and bobsleigh hopefuls. Dates should be announced soon.

According to Simon Zirnhelt, there's room for more recruits.

"We can always take more," she said. "We only have a certain amount of equipment so if the numbers do increase a lot the athletes will have to start purchasing their own equipment, or share the equipment over fewer runs. But there is a lot of room left before that becomes an issue - for luge I think we could probably take another 30 athletes and we'd be fine."

The track has two two-person bobsleighs, which are used and built to be sturdy for training. They're worth about $5,000 each. "Our sleds are tanks," said Simon Zirnhelt. "They can take a licking and keep on ticking."

By contrast, a new sled starts at around $25,000.

They also have simple skeleton sleds that start at around $3,500, although competition sleds can cost $10,000 or more. They also have simple training luges that are lower end.

"We are always trying to add more equipment when we can, but it doesn't come cheap," said Simon Zirnhelt. "The priority is to get more racers involved, and pick up the equipment when we can."

The sliding sports have a bright future in Canada with gold, silver and bronze medals in bobsleigh and a gold in men's skeleton, and as a result was one of a few organizations to see their funding increase through the Own the Podium program. Some of that money is being spent on development, which includes helping to fund programs in Whistler.

The sliding centre has managed to recruit strong coaches for all three sports, with Matt McMurray from Calgary steering luge, former Latvian coach Ivo Pakalns - who coached an Olympic silver medallist - guiding the skeleton program, and Jill Bakken, a gold medallist in bobsleigh in 2002 for the U.S. team, at the helm of bobsleigh.

"We know we have a few world class coaches that are working with us, and we know they will help us build the program," said Simon Zirnhelt.

Following this weekend's B.C. Cup races there will be a second B.C. Cup for luge on Jan. 30, and for bobsleigh and skeleton on Feb. 6. The B.C. Championships are on March 13.

As well, luge athletes will have the opportunity to compete in the youth luge national championships on Feb. 26.

For more information on the venue, visit