Canadian men’s skeleton team hopes to recreate success of past Olympics
Canadian skeleton racers have owned the podium since 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy.
The men’s team in particular has captured three of the six possible medals, two gold and one silver; narrowly missing a complete podium sweep in 2006 by 0.26 of a second. Canada is the only nation to have 11 sliders qualify for Olympic competition over those years, six men and five women.
But times have changed. Duff Gibson and Jeff Pain, the pair that won gold and silver in Torino, have retired and Jon Montgomery, who won gold in Vancouver, spent last season on a technical development hiatus and has no world ranking.
The net result is that the Sochi Olympics are only 15 months away and the Canadian men do not have a single slider ranked in the top ten.
However, Gibson, now serving as the team’s head coach, remains optimistic.
Photo by Dan Mackenzie
“We might have a really tough-to-beat Canadian team through and through,” he says of his largely inexperienced squad.
He says the results his team gets will largely depend on how hungry his athletes are.
“Even the best athletes are always striving to do something a little bit different, a little bit better,” he says. “You have to elevate your game all the time to match up.”
State of affairs
The fact of the matter is this:
In this all important year before the Sochi Olympics, Team Canada is fielding John Fairbairn, a competent driver who, says Gibson, struggles with his push and is currently ranked No. 11 in the world; Eric Neilson, a fitness trainer who lacks experience and consistency who ranks at No. 16; and Montgomery, the 33-year-old and self-confessed “old dog” of the squad who is busy working his way back to the elite level after his absence.
To qualify for Olympic contention, a slider must place within the top six at least four times over the course of nine World Cup competitions this season.
Currently the top six ranks are occupied by a trio of Germans, a Russian and two Latvian athletes including the undisputed and reigning World Cup champion, Martins Dukurs.
Graphic by Dan Mackenzie
“Dukurs is arguably the best person to ever compete in skeleton,” says Gibson. “He’s the best combination you’ve ever had of someone who was almost the no. 1 pusher and almost the no. 1 driver in one person. That’s basically never happened before.”
Last season Dukurs won seven of eight World Cup competitions, has won 12 of the last 16 competitions in total, and has finished off of the podium only three times since the beginning of 2009. By comparison, the last podium appearance made by a Canadian man in a World Cup competition was in November of 2010.
Behind Dukurs, German slider Frank Rommel, Russian Alexander Tretiakov and Dukurs’ own brother Tomass have had to content themselves with silver and bronze, but have proven to be more than a match for any Canadian contender.
“Those guys are the upper echelon,” Eric Neilson says. “Those are the guys I want to be.”
Great red and white hope
Canada’s Olympic skeleton hopes rest in a lot of uncertainty. But there is room for optimism. Neilson’s World Cup performances last season yielded two top-six results.
“The talent is there, the potential is there,” says Gibson. “It’s a matter of cleaning it up.”
Neilson is heading into only his second season in World Cup competition, making his multiple top-six finishes significant. Not many do so well in their first season of competition.
“Nobody beats another athlete in skeleton racing. You just do the best you can and let the chips fall where they may.”
More importantly, Neilson himself says his position as an underdog gives him an edge.
“You might not think that I’m going to do anything,” he says. “But just wait, because I’m coming.”
If Neilson can improve his consistency, he may be a force to be reckoned with. At the 2012 World Championships he finished with an aggregate rank of 13th overall for the competition, but his final run was the second fastest of the heat, behind Dukurs alone.
And of course, Jon Montgomery has beaten Dukurs when it mattered most: at the 2010 Olympic games.
“Jon is very good at racing big at the big event,” Gibson says. “I would never write off Jon, that gold medal-winning performance was maybe literally the best performance I’ve ever seen.”
For his part, Montgomery is focused on making sure that his game is at its peak. But he says the best way to beat Dukurs is to let Dukurs beat himself.
“Nobody beats another athlete in skeleton racing,” he says. “You just do the best you can and let the chips fall where they may.”
He says that his teammates are hungry, talented and up to the challenge ahead.
But with the odds stacked against them, only the next 15 months will tell.