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Watts takes 12th in Olympic debut

Young luger soaking in all PyeongChang has to offer
STRONG SHOWING Luger Reid Watts secured a 12th-place finish after putting down four solid runs at the Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea on Saturday and Sunday. Photo courtesy of the Canadian Olympic Committee

Reid Watts' first Olympic Games was, admittedly, a bit of a blur.

With the men's singles luge races slated for early on in the Games, early in the morning Whistler time on Saturday and Sunday, the squad of Watts, Sam Edney and Mitchel Malyk didn't attend the Opening Ceremony.

But the rest paid off, as Edney posted his Olympic-best sixth in his final Games and Watts put up an impressive 12th-place finish, which exceeded his top FIL World Cup finish of 17th. Malyk, meanwhile, took 16th to finish in the top half of the field.

Austrian David Gleirscher took the gold after two-time defending champion Felix Loch of Germany suffered some hard hits on his final run to drop from first to fifth. American Chris Mazdzer scored the silver and German Johannes Ludwig won bronze.

In his sophomore season on the World Cup circuit, Watts' progress hasn't gone exactly as planned. However, with the entire field looking to figure out the new PyeongChang track, the Alpensia Sliding Centre, there was more of a level playing field and Watts was one of the beneficiaries.

"I'm super happy with how it went. It's been a struggle this whole season finding my consistency, so to do it at the Olympic Games, it's a good time and place for it," Watts said. "It was definitely different nerves in such a big race with such a big name. All your friends and family are all there watching. It was a confident feeling and you're excited."

When he lined up at the start gate for his inaugural run, Watts acknowledged feeling a little bit different than at any other World Cup events.

"It was a pretty surreal feeling because the race was very late at night, so we had the whole day. Trying to keep your mind off of it when (you don't have) much of an appetite, you're just so excited for this," he said. "About 30 minutes before my first run, my brain was just off. Turn off the brain, let the body do the work. You know what you need to do."

In each of his first three runs, Watts managed to shave time as he felt he gradually improved over the course of competition.

"There are definitely things that you can't quite see on TV but you can feel on the sled. There were a couple times where I was tight on the sled and a couple times I had to just lay loose and be way more relaxed," he said. "There are always small things. There's no such thing as the perfect luge run.

"All four runs were some of the best runs I've slid all year anywhere."

Watts had previous experience at the Alpensia Sliding Centre at last year's test event, but with a number of Whistler Sliding Centre crew members in tow, noted it was a different experience this time around.

"It was quick this week. It was very fast. The Whistler track guys, they definitely put in some magic into that one," he said.

With several familiar faces over in South Korea, including his parents, as well as countless messages sent through Facebook, Watts certainly felt plenty of love and support at the Games.

"It's overwhelming that so many people were watching. I had no idea. It was so great. I'm so happy with it," Watts said. "I don't know the exact number (of messages) but there's a lot coming in."

Watts is now done for the Games and will have the opportunity to soak in the atmosphere of the world's largest sporting event and march in the closing ceremonies.

"Right now, I'm just helping out with the women's and doubles events that are going on at the track. I'm helping out my teammates and helping them have good races as well," Watts said the morning before Canadian Alex Gough won Canada's first individual luge medal with a bronze in the women's race later that evening. A pair of Germans took the top two spots as Natalie Geisenberger won gold and Dajana Eitberger won silver. Meanwhile, Kim McRae was fifth and Brooke Apshkrum took 13th.

After his fourth run, Watts was briefly in first place until Austria's Wolfgang Kindl came down right afterward with a new track record. While it was always likely a fleeting moment, to even have a few moments in the Olympic hot seat was a thrill for Watts.

"It was enjoyable. It was honestly a bit of a blur," he said. "The whole Olympic experience is starting to sink in a little bit. It was great having my family right across from me on the stands."

In other action at the Games, Mark McMorris took home his second consecutive bronze in the snowboard slopestyle competition as American teenager Red Gerard pulled off the upset with a solid gold-medal run. McMorris' teammate Max Parrot nailed his final run to snag the silver.

Canada also medalled on the women's side, with Laurie Blouin taking silver in the slopestyle event in controversially windy conditions. American Jamie Anderson won gold and Finland's Enni Rukajarvi took home bronze.

In the women's halfpipe, none of the three Canadians, including Whistler's four-time Olympian Mercedes Nicoll, advanced to the final. American teenager Chloe Kim scored the win while China's Jiayu Liu took silver and fellow American Arielle Gold won bronze.

On the slopes, the skiers got off to a later start after the downhill race was bumped back due to high-wind conditions on Feb. 10. When they finally got underway on Feb. 12 with the Alpine combined, Whistler Mountain Ski Club alums Jack Crawford and Broderick Thompson got off to strong starts, placing 20th and 23rd, respectively. Austria's Marcel Hirscher won gold while a pair of French skiers, Alexis Pinturault and Victor Muffat-Jeandet, rounded out the podium.

Additionally, Freestyle Whistler alumnus Daichi Hara, representing Japan, scored bronze in men's moguls. Canadian legend Mikael Kingsbury scored his first gold while Australian Matt Graham was second.