February 11, 2018 Features & Images » Feature Story

Golden Dreams 

Whistler is well represented at the 2018 Winter Olympic Games, but what does it take to get there?

click to flip through (14) ILLUSTRATION BY KARL PARTINGTON - Golden Dreams  Whistler is well represented at the 2018 Winter Olympic Games, but what does it take to get there?
  • Illustration by Karl Partington
  • Golden Dreams Whistler is well represented at the 2018 Winter Olympic Games, but what does it take to get there?

Twenty years have passed since snowboarder Ross Rebagliati shouted out "WHISTLER" after winning gold in 1998.

And over the next two weeks, as the Games return to Asia, a number of local athletes could be well positioned atop the podium to repeat Ross' yell.

The Whistler roster ranges from first-timer Reid Watts, the 19-year-old luger who represents the first hyper-local legacy of the Whistler Sliding Centre, to snowboarder Mercedes Nicoll, who made her Olympic debut a dozen years ago in Italy and is off to her fourth Games. As well, part-timers like alpine skier Jack Crawford and athletes representing other nations, like luger Veronica Ravenna of Argentina, alpine skier Arabella Ng of Hong Kong, and moguls skiers Daichi Hara of Japan and Jae Woo Choi of South Korea, have strong Whistler connections.

With competition kicking off today (Feb. 8) in curling and ski jumping and the opening ceremonies slated for Friday, Feb. 9, Pique looks at who to keep an eye on during the two-week extravaganza and shares stories from the athletes as they get ready to compete.

It's clear to anyone watching the Games that it takes years of preparation to reach the pinnacle of sporting achievement, the Olympic and Paralympic Games. It's hard to imagine what it takes to learn the control and confidence to hurtle down a mountain or a sliding track or race as fast as you can on skinny skis.

So reporters Dan Falloon and Brandon Barrett decided to take to the track at the Whistler Sliding Centre to get a taste of the thrill and commitment it takes to be world-class athlete.


On Thin Ice

By Brandon Barrett

"Things will go a lot easier for you if you just relax."

This is a message that gets repeated constantly by the top-notch coaching staff at the Whistler Sliding Centre. It's a tidbit of advice that rings true on a certain logical level, but from a practical standpoint, it turns out "just relaxing" is a lot easier said than done when facing the daunting prospect of hurtling down an ice-covered track at speeds that can crack 140 kilometres an hour.

Home to the skeleton, luge and bobsleigh events at the 2010 Winter Olympics, the Whistler Sliding Centre is where we found ourselves on a recent snowy morning last month. Pique sports editor Dan Falloon and I had made what seemed like a good decision at the time to test our mettle on the fastest ice track on the planet.

I knew somewhere deep down that we were going to be just fine. We were, after all, in good hands, having been teamed up with the sliding centre's finest coaches, handpicked specifically to show us uncoordinated reporters the ropes. Besides, "the training sleds are basically uncrashable," reassures bobsleigh head coach Ryan Taal.

I breathe a sigh of relief. We're probably not going to die today.

"Well, except for the time the Chinese national team flipped one."



It's the constant push and pull between the rational and irrational parts of the brain that seemed to dominate my headspace in the moments before setting off from Corner 11. First up was skeleton, which, if its morbid name doesn't freak you out, sliding headfirst, Superman-style sure will. Skeleton, head coach Cassie Hawrysh informs us, is actually the safest of the three main sliding sports, which is sort of like saying a Glock 9 is the safest kind of firearm.

All of this was running through my mind as I settled onto the sled, stomach down, face just inches from the ice, each hand white-knuckled around the saddle. Oh, did I mention there aren't any brakes? Riders have to use good ole-fashioned torque to navigate each tight corner, and rakes on the toes of their specially designed shoes to help them slow down if need be. This doesn't exactly strike me as the most effective braking system to avoid catastrophic injury, but, hey, I'm not the expert here.

"You want to melt into your sled," explains Hawrysh, an alternate for the 2014 Olympics, urging me to roll my shoulders forward, pushing my helmet even closer to the face-strafing ice. This, as I would learn, is no easy feat. Your body naturally wants to tense up as it careens down the sloping track, neck straining to see the next turn, arms clinging to the sled for dear life. This is, understandably, not the most aerodynamic way to slide, which became evident when I clocked in with a nothing-to-write-home-about time of just over 35 seconds on my first run.


The essence of any sliding sport, essentially, is tricking yourself into a state of profound calm, going against your better instincts. I tried to carry this top of mind as I prepared for my second run, taking long, deep breaths and a few minutes to stretch before jumping back on the sled. The run, in and of itself, was exhilarating. There's a certain liberating feeling to skeleton that I didn't find in the more technical sport of bobsleigh, with its memorized corners and D-ring steering. Skeleton is more about feel, armed with only your toes for braking and subtle shifts in your body weight for navigation. At least at my beginner level, you have no choice but to give yourself over to the kinetic forces at play, strapping in for the ride.

Bolstered by the experience of not dying on my first run, the second went a heck of a lot smoother for me. My muscles felt looser, my nerves less frayed, my melt more melty, so much so that I shaved nearly two seconds off my original time, which, in a sport where the difference between gold-medal glory and relative obscurity can be mere hundredths of a second, seemed significant.


Time is the bane of any elite sliding athlete's existence.

And not just because the margin of error separating victory from defeat, as mentioned earlier, is about as slim as you can conceive in any sport imaginable. The reality is sliding athletes can never find enough time. The gruelling demands of these unique sports mean that athletes typically don't get more than three training runs in a day; any more than that would be too taxing on the body.

"You know that thing that says you need to spend 10,000 hours doing something to become an expert?" asks bobsleigh coach Ryan Taal. "Well, you can imagine how long it would take to accumulate all those hours of practice if you're only doing three runs a day, a few times a week, for a handful of months a year."

It's some pretty astonishing math when you actually sit down to think about it. For the sake of a nice, round number, let's say the average Olympic-length, two-man bobsleigh run lasts for about a minute. (The fastest run at the 2010 Games for Germany's gold-medal-winning men's team, was 51.57, a track record.) So if you get three training runs in a day, five days a week, for the four months or so a year that weather permits, it would take you a whopping 2,500 years to hit Malcolm Gladwell's recommended 10,000-hour threshold.

This means that the athletes that have dedicated themselves to a life of sliding have only a fraction of the time to master their craft compared to the gym rats devoting hours a day to their respective sports.

It might also help explain why a sport like bobsleigh sees so many spectacular crashes — even at the highest levels. There were, for instance, a total of eight crashes out of 57 runs on the first day of two-man bobsleigh practices at the 2010 Games. That's a crash rate of 14 per cent, which would be considered a dangerous ratio in virtually any other racing sport (although it would probably make NASCAR a lot more interesting).

It's why bobsleigh teams diligently study the ins and outs of every track they compete on, poring over photographs and walking through each twist and turn of a run before race day.

It requires a laserbeam focus and a slavish devotion to detail. A common training tactic sees bobsleigh coaches post up at various corners along a track, sporting a different coloured cap on each run that a pilot will have to identify.

But with that monk-like concentration also comes the odd moment of Zen. Streaking down a freshly manicured sheet of ice at bone-rattling speeds has a way of forcing you to focus on nothing but the here and now. Call it extreme mindfulness. Bills piling up? Oil needs changing? Drama at the office? None of it matters when the knife-edge of your runner digs into the ice and the G-force begins to press down on your chest, sending you plunging into the unknown depths below.


Broderick Thompson

alpine skiing (Feb. 10, 6 p.m. and Feb. 12, 6:30 p.m)

It's been a dream for Broderick Thompson to attend the Games for as long as he can remember. Now, he'll be going for the first time.

"I had some pictures of myself on the podium and competing, with little writings," he said describing the images he would draw as a child. "As soon as I could understand the Olympics, I wanted to go."

But which sport to pursue was the question.

Thompson, 23, said a number of his childhood drawings of himself were as a figure skater, not a skier.

"I did both from when I was a tiny kid. Until I was 16, I did both," he said. "Doing many sports was definitely helpful, as skating involves a lot of edging... Being able to recover and (having) balance was all helpful toward skiing, for sure."


Reid Watts

luge (Feb. 10, 2 a.m. and Feb. 11, 3 a.m.)

The 19-year-old Watts is perhaps ahead of schedule for his first Games, but hopes to make an impact in the luge event.

He's the first Whistler-raised sliding Olympian to call the Whistler Sliding Centre his home track and having honed his craft on the fastest track in the world, feels confident stepping into the spotlight.

While making the Olympics was the end goal for Watts, it started to come into view two years ago when he made his World Cup debut in Sigulda, Latvia at the end of the 2015-16 season.

"I was here in Latvia when I got brought up to the team where I am right now," he says as he prepares for the final World Cup of the campaign, again in Sigulda. "Two years ago, that's when it became real for me and that's what I've been training for and now it's so close."

With the opportunity to take in the Vancouver/Whistler Games firsthand, Watts had a tangible sense of what he was dedicating his life to reaching towards.

"Having the 2010 Games in Whistler was great for me," he says. "Now I'm racing with some of my teammates that I was watching at the Games now, too. Being able to call them my teammates is awesome. There's nothing like it."

Watts appreciates the opportunity that he had growing up in Whistler and growing as an athlete with a motley crew supporting him throughout his development.

"There's so much support from all sides because of the athletic atmosphere," he says. "Whistlerites have always been there for me. My friends, family and school are always supporting me."

While this will be Watts' first-ever Olympic Games, he had a great test experience in 2015 with the Youth Olympic Games in Lillehammer, Norway, where he earned a bronze medal.

"The Youth Olympic Games were definitely a good warm-up progression for what I should be expecting at the Olympic Games with the whole athletes' village, the whole Olympic atmosphere, how things work, how it's a whole lot more complicated and just a big deal," Watts told Pique in a previous interview.


Simon d'Artois

halfpipe skiing (Feb. 19 at 8 p.m. and 21 at 6:30 p.m.)

The last quadrennial hasn't exactly been an easy one for freestyle skier Simon d'Artois.

After falling short of qualifying for the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia, he seemed to be staking an early claim to a 2018 spot by becoming the first Canadian ever to medal in superpipe in the X Games in 2015.

But since then, the 26-year-old has yo-yoed between Freestyle Canada's A team and its B team, with drastic differences in program support, namely in having accommodation and travel covered. The Whistler native began this season on the B squad, but after medalling in his first two FIS World Cup events of the year, was called back up to the A team for December and January before receiving his official call to Korea in late January.

"I didn't have quite as much support from my sponsors, and also, I was on the B team for Canada which means that I didn't get as much funding," he says. "I luckily had a bit more financial support from my sponsors to allow me to do what I needed to do training-wise, to attend the training camps and focus on my skiing.

"It's turned around with the first two results from August and in December, I was called up to the A team.

"It's quite an awesome achievement in itself and I was just happy to be back on the A team."

From his previous penny-pinching, d'Artois discovered how best to manage, which he says was a significant help during some lean times earlier this season.

"I definitely was able to handle it a little bit better in terms of managing money and expenses and what I needed to focus on," he says. "I knew that I needed to put everything I had into it to get to the Games and that's what I did."

Added to the economic uncertainty was d'Artois' two years of action lost to injury, as he didn't compete between March 2015 and February 2017.

"I just knew that if I worked hard, as hard as I could, that I could take it as far as I wanted. I'm just happy to see it progress to the next level," he says.

With halfpipe skiing only being a recent addition to the Games in 2014, the Olympics weren't exactly at the forefront of d'Artois' mind as a youngster. But when his sport of excellence was added, it became far more realistic.

"I started skiing just to ski and have fun but I always watched the Olympics as a kid and I always thought that it would be an unbelievable achievement to become an Olympic athlete, never really thinking that I would go until I competed in halfpipe. All of a sudden, halfpipe was an Olympic sport and then I found myself with an opportunity," says d'Artois, who added he's thankful to the Whistler community, as well as his friends, family and girlfriend, for helping him achieve his goal.


Cassie Sharpe

halfpipe skiing (Feb. 18 at 5 p.m. and Feb. 19 at 5:30 p.m.)

Winning her first FIS World Cup event of the year in New Zealand in August put Cassie Sharpe in the driver's seat to qualify for her first Games.

Winning at the Dew Tour in December clinched it and a third win at Aspen helped Sharpe ensure she's heading into the Games hot.

(Breaking her thumb during the X Games in late January didn't seem to initially hinder Sharpe, as she placed third there as well.)

Like fellow halfpipe athlete Simon d'Artois, she hasn't harboured Olympic ambitions for as long as some others because of freestyle's recent recognition. But after the 2014 Games, she narrowed her sights onto halfpipe, won her first World Cup in 2015 and has continued her upward trajectory ever since.

"When the sport got added in, I wasn't into just halfpipe yet. I was still into slopestyle as well, but after watching our Canadians in Sochi, it really just blew me away on such a big stage at such an amazing competition," she says. "At that point I knew that if I really stuck to it, I could go, too."

Sharpe moved to Whistler roughly seven years ago to pursue skiing more seriously. She enjoys several Games legacies like the Whistler Athletes' Centre in Cheakamus Crossing, but numerous other amenities.

"I grew up riding there and riding the park, hitting the jumps and doing the WSI (World Ski Invitational)," she recalls. "Whistler has been a huge part in my success."

Sharpe grew up on Vancouver Island and riding Mount Washington.

"Riding Mount Washington every weekend had a lot to do with building my love and building my career," she says. "It's such an active place that people were always doing something. There's something in the water there."


Teal Harle

slopestyle skiing (Feb. 17 at 5 p.m.)

Another Vancouver Island ex-pat, Teal Harle says he just hoped to make a living on his skis.

With his family starting Podium of Life, which served as both athletic and academic education for many of his formative years, Harle had ample opportunity to train on the mountains before moving to Whistler in 2014, the same year as the most recent Winter Games.

"I was more looking at just being a skier rather than going to events and competing seriously," he says. "Obviously, after 2014, I was thinking that it would be super cool to go to the Olympics for skiing in my sport, but it wasn't really a goal until last year.

At just 21, Harle's career is just beginning and he looks to progress properly and patiently. But after topping the podium at his first World Cup last season, things started to come into focus and he targeted participating in PyeongChang.

"When I won the contest (at Silvaplana, Switzerland) last year, that's when I thought 'I might be able to actually make it,'" he recalls. "All this year I've been feeling really good about my skiing, very confident. A couple things always are nagging me with my skiing, but other than that, I'm feeling good. I'm feeling more confident, more experienced.

"It could have been something other than experience as well, but I don't know what it was. Definitely just doing more contests has helped me feel more comfortable because it becomes more normal."

Harle highlights the move to Whistler as a gamechanger for him, as his home hill just wasn't holding up any longer.

"(The move) definitely helped me on my path because I had grown out of Mount Washington with the park skiing. Their park was a little small for the level that I needed. It wasn't really pushing me," he says. "When I went to Whistler with a bigger park, bigger jumps, actual rails and not just boxes, it definitely helped me progress even more."


Jane Channell

skeleton (Feb. 16 and 17 at 3:20 a.m.)

At 29, Jane Channell is a little bit older than many first-time Olympians.

But the skeleton racer is looking to make her debut count, having switched to a more suitable sled in the offseason and racking up some fairly solid results en route to finishing fifth overall in the Crystal Globe chase. Channell also equalled her career best at an early-season race in Whistler when she placed second.

With experience at the South Korean track, too, she's eager to see what she can do.

"The way the season has gone, I've gotten more and more comfortable on my sled, which is hugely important," she says. "To be able to go back to the PyeongChang track, with the knowledge I now have from this season, I'm really excited to see what I can do there.

"It's a really different track. It's not like any other track out there, which makes it a challenge, but I really liked it. It's a mix between a driver's track and a glider's track. It will be a challenge."

Speaking shortly after the end of the World Cup season, Channell hadn't entirely sorted through her feelings of knowing she'd be sliding in sport's brightest spotlight.

"It hasn't actually sunken in yet. I want to say it feels incredible and everything, but it hasn't actually hit me that we'll be going to the Olympics, that this is our goal, what we've been working on for however many years now. I don't know when it will hit me but when it does, I think it's going to be overwhelming," she says. "I'm so proud and I can't wait to wear that maple leaf across my back."

The North Vancouver resident explains she had a pair of epiphanies on her quest — one in childhood and one in adulthood — that helped set her in the direction she wanted to go.

"The idea of the Olympics first came when I first figured out what skeleton was back in 2002 when I was watching the Salt Lake City Games with my grandpa on TV. Then, the Vancouver Olympic Games, having that in my backyard, is what truly sparked that dream of wanting to legitimately go and try to figure out the steps I had to take in order to get there," she says. "I always had an open mind to everything, so the first run down the track, it was always 'I can do this; this can actually happen' even before I really tried the sport.

"That's the mindset I went into it with, a dream-big mentality, hard work and doing whatever I had to do to get here."

It was the Olympics on home soil that truly steeled Channell's resolve, she recalls, as she was surrounded by the Games in Vancouver and got to experience the jamboree firsthand. She was taken aback by the national unity and looks forward to furthering that cause in South Korea.

"Not many things I can think of have that capability of bringing the country together for one common goal and that was something I wanted to be a part of. That was a big inspiration and a big pull as to why I really wanted to go to the Olympics — to be part of something bigger than me," she says.


Marielle Thompson

ski-cross (Feb. 22 at 6:30 p.m.)

The 25-year-old Thompson was a bit of a surprise inclusion on the Olympic team when it was revealed by Alpine Canada on Jan. 22, but it had nothing to do with her track record.

The defending Olympic champion and three-time FIS Crystal Globe winner has dominated the quadrennial and was the odds-on favourite to repeat in PyeongChang.

But after rupturing her ACL and MCL in training in October, Thompson's participation was in jeopardy. While she'll decide closer to the Games whether she's ready to race or not, it would be foolish to write her off if she's in the start gate.

Thompson was back on snow at Nakiska Ski Area the day before the announcement, but was set to return to Whistler to train on her most familiar terrain in the lead-up to the Games.

Thompson has kept a close eye on her rivals, including first-hand at the recent race at Nakiska.

"I've been watching every race. I've been trying to keep my head in the game. It's good to see such competitive races for my competitors," she says. "I'm looking forward to working my way back and hopefully joining them over there."


Dave Duncan

ski-cross (Feb. 20 at 5:30 p.m.)

Whistler resident Dave Duncan has now been named to the Canadian Olympic Team three times, but is only set to compete at his second Games.

Duncan injured himself shortly before the Vancouver Games in 2010 and was forced to drop out, but made his debut in Sochi when he finished 26th. Since then, he's faced challenges after a 2015 crash at Val Thorens, France, left him with a concussion that was hard to shake for nearly two years afterwards.

Duncan rebounded with five top-10 finishes in 2016-17 and while he hasn't seen the same results this year, stresses that the mechanics are there and the finishes he desires are likely to follow.

"I'm just more generally happy with how I'm feeling out there and I'm confident that that will lead to success at some point," he says.


Yuki Tsubota

slopestyle skiing (Feb. 16 at 5 p.m.)

Whistler's Yuki Tsubota has admittedly been lukewarm on her 2017-18 season, with a top World Cup finish of eighth to this point.

But it's been good enough to secure her second trip to the Olympics, which was the primary focal point.

With an eye toward South Korea, Tsubota worked with ragged determination to incorporate a switch 900 into her run, which she successfully did at the Aspen World Cup in January.

"I've been practicing this trick for about a year and (in Aspen) I had nothing to lose, so I said 'Let's do it,'" she recalls.

Tsubota is keen to return to the Olympic level with the maple leaf on her back and the anthem in her throat.

"It's great to be able to represent your country at a world-class event and the support I get from people is amazing and I love that," the 24-year-old says.

While her Olympic debut in 2014 didn't go exactly how she envisioned — a dramatic crash dashed Tsubota's medal hopes, though she still finished sixth — she's proud of her performance and is well prepared to go back.

"For me, it's more something to build on. I know what it's like, the pressure," she says.


Manny Osborne-Paradis

Alpine skiing (Feb. 10 at 6 p.m. and Feb. 14 at 6 p.m.)

A lot can change in four years.

Downhill skier Manny Osborne-Paradis, a Whistler Mountain Ski Club alumnus, reflects that he's had changes in between each of his three Olympic appearances, but has had his life alter pretty dramatically in the last quadrennial.

"I'm a dad and I've got a house. Life keeps you rolling through and it's not as complicated as when you're in and out of different places," he says.

On the hill, Osborne-Paradis has reacted well to a change to Head skis, especially this season as he's consistently placed in the top 20. While he'd admittedly like to be higher, it's not a bad jumping-off point for a one-off race where a couple strong runs is all it takes.

Osborne-Paradis, who turned 34 on Feb. 8, also feels he's matured a great deal in recent seasons, and it's shown on the mountain.

"Mentally, I think a lot more ready, especially after the last quadrennial," he says. "After the season, I feel like I can assess what I've done wrong, what I feel like I need, and I'm getting better at knowing already for the next season. That's taken a lot of time, but it's about showing up at the Olympics with as much knowledge as you have and as much mental capacity to not get angry when things don't work out in how you're going to fly there."


Mercedes Nicoll

halfpipe snowboard (Feb. 11 at 8:30 p.m. and Feb. 12 at 5 p.m.)

It took Mercedes Nicoll well over a year and a half to bounce back from a harrowing crash at the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Russia.

The prospect of a fourth Games in 2018 at age 34 didn't seem all that feasible when, at times, leaving the house was a challenge. But Nicoll's health progressed back to a better place, and eventually, so too did her boarding. Nicoll returned to the World Cup circuit in 2016 after over two years away and is going into the Olympics with her best result since her injury, a 12th-place showing in Laax, Switzerland in late January.

Cracking the team made Nicoll feel like a 22-year-old again.

"It feels like the first time because the last four years have been such a journey for me recovering from the Sochi Games," she says. "It feels like I put so much work into these Games.

"In the last year, my eyes opened like it was a possibility to go to the Games again and it's been really feels like such a long year. I just tried to stay on my feet in contests and qualify.

"Sometimes the hardest part for me is qualifying for the Games because there's so much pressure."

Nicoll acknowledges that the realization of what she accomplished didn't fully hit her until everything was made official in Calgary shortly after the Laax event.

"I've been so focused on the task at hand the last two years just trying to make it to the Olympics and I didn't realize until the announcement (Jan. 25) how much it meant to me. I was on a roller coaster out of tears of joy and couldn't stop because I actually took a moment to realize the past four years, how hard I worked to get to this position again," she says. "I'm so proud and excited."

The Whistlerite is still grasping to return to where she was before her injury, but says the biggest block is the move that sent her on the path she traversed the past four years.

"My goal is to get my backside 900 back because that's the trick that took me out in Sochi," she says. "It's been a mental barrier of mine to get that back and get my riding to a level back to where I feel comfortable and not hesitant. It's been a big mental battle to get back into snowboarding, let alone where I was in 2014."

Readers also liked…

  • Mind Maze

    How young adults are navigating the path to mental health in Whistler
    • Mar 25, 2018
  • Death in the Alpine

    Social media is changing our relationship to risk, with deadly consequences
    • Jun 10, 2018

Latest in Feature Story

  • Your Vote 2019:

    The Pique guide to #Elxn43
    • Oct 18, 2019
  • Deadly decisions

    Critics say the BC Conservation officer Service is overly reliant on lethal force—it maintains they are only seeing a 'snapshot' of what they do
    • Oct 11, 2019
  • Whatcha Smokin'?

    Canadians face lifetime bans to U.S. over past cannabis use, CBD oils and social media posts
    • Oct 4, 2019
  • More »

More by Brandon Barrett

More by Dan Falloon

© 1994-2019 Pique Publishing Inc., Glacier Community Media

- Website powered by Foundation