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Back on track: New season kicks off at Whistler Sliding Centre

The Olympic venue will host a total of seven international events—including luge, bobsleigh and skeleton world cups—over the next two months.
Skeleton athlete Nicole Silveira, pictured during a training session at the Whistler Sliding Centre last winter. Silveira competed for Brazil in the 2022 Olympic Winter Games after learning to slide in Whistler.

Afternoons in the Sea to Sky this October might be feeling more like summer, but winter is officially underway at the Whistler Sliding Centre: Canada’s top luge, skeleton and bobsled athletes returned to the local track for preseason training on Thursday, Oct. 13.

Still, that doesn’t mean the unseasonably warm weather hasn’t posed a few challenges for sliding centre staff.

“It’s a bit like trying to keep food frozen in the freezer with the door open,” said Roger Soane, president and CEO of Whistler Sport Legacies (WSL). The not- for-profit organization operates the sliding centre, as well as Whistler Olympic Park and the Whistler Athletes’ Centre in Cheakamus.

With daily highs still climbing into the low 20s, “It’s very difficult to get the concrete down to the right temperature without cranking the cooling,” Soane added. “I’m expecting a very large hydro bill for the month of September and October.”

In order to craft the track, that concrete must be cooled to a surface temperature of -4 degrees C before being misted with water from top to bottom. Once that mist freezes, crews get to work scraping and shaping the 1,450-metre-long track (its total square footage is equivalent to four NHL rinks) by hand. A similar process is repeated daily— sometimes even multiple times per day—in order to maintain the ice surface.

“It’s gruelling work,” said Soane, but “it’s very rewarding when you see those athletes go down. And I have to tell you, the athletes are very appreciative of the work the track team is doing to keep the track in pristine condition, especially at this time of year.”

After a two-season hiatus due to the pandemic, those athletes will once again get to race on home soil this year. The sliding centre is gearing up for one of its busiest seasons on record as it welcomes back a slate of World Cup and North American Cup races in all three disciplines—a total of seven international events—over the next two months, drawing some of the top- ranked athletes in the world. (Head to the sliding centre’s online event calendar for specific dates.)

One new event on the calendar this year is the Bobsleigh Para Sport World Cup scheduled for Nov. 5 and 6, the first event of its kind to ever take place in Canada, said Soane. “It’s a very interesting new aspect of the sport,” he explained. “Because there is no push at the start of the race, the men and the women compete together, so it really [comes down to] driving skill. It will be exciting.”

Before those events get underway, locals and visitors are welcome to stop by the sliding centre any time during opening hours, including scheduled training sessions, to check out the action for free. “The gates are open,” said Soane. “You can walk around the track, see the athletes and watch them train. You will be amazed at the speed and the skill level.”

For those who think they might have more fun on the track than in the spectator zone, the sliding centre also hosted a free bobsled and skeleton recruitment session on Sunday, Oct. 16, where young athletes aged 14 and up were invited to attend and assess their potential through a 30-metre sprint, medicine ball throw and standing long jump.

Once race period is over, the sliding centre will refocus its operations on public passenger bobsled and skeleton programming, available from mid- December until mid-April, as well as training and developing these up-and-coming athletes in all three sliding sports.

“As far as Whistler Sports Legacies are concerned, this is what we were built for,” said Soane. When the CEO first joined the organization a decade ago, “everyone was concerned we would lose our relevance within the community; that we would be a bit of a white elephant in the community,” he said. “I think we’ve proved that consistently, we’ve stayed ahead of the curve, we’ve stayed very relevant within the community.

“Our development programs are busier now than they’ve ever been, and we’re seeing local athletes that have trained and grown up on our track now representing their country. It’s just part of being a world- class facility and operating at the highest level,” he continued. “For any sport, to be hosting the world’s best athletes, year-in, year-out, is something that’s always going to be good for Whistler.”