Track pulls rookie, veteran sliders in equal measure

Locals, women's bobsleigh pioneer among racers drawn to Whistler Sliding Centre

The Whistler Sliding Centre is fast becoming a magnet for many, pulling in elite athletes, speed fiends, hundreds and thousands of awestruck spectators and an intriguing mix of racers. Its frighteningly fast, challenging track is both bringing new converts into the world of sliding sports and drawing pioneers out of retirement.

Longtime Whistlerite Mario Chartrand, a 22-year ski patroller, is one of several locals making the leap into the sleds, ready to take on the track that sends athletes flying through its icy channels at speeds faster than most of us drive our cars.

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An emergency medical responder and safety supervisor for the Whistler Sliding Centre, Chartrand worked on the construction of the track for two years, after beginning in 2006 "when there was really nothing here except for woods."

He stayed with the facility, knowing track officials would need people to watch over the safety of what is almost certainly fastest sliding track in the world, but he said he didn't know what he was getting himself into.

"I had never seen a bobsled or a luge go by at 140 kilometres an hour. But the first day, Pierre Lueders ran, and I (thought), 'Wow, I want to get involved in some way, somehow,'" Chartrand said at the track's finish dock on March 22.

In the sliding centre's first season, Chartrand began helping run test sleds for the future tourist program, falling in love with the speed and the feeling of the powerful G-forces in the track's final corner.

He then expressed an interest in learning to pilot for the public pay-ride program, entering his first weeklong training program in December 2008 with national coaches, learning the ropes on the two-man sleds and driving about 12 runs.

The first time he drove the track, he said, "I really didn't know what to think, it was so fast, and I really didn't know if I was driving or not. But a coach assured me I was actually driving.

"It's a little overwhelming at first."

After getting more track time during another training camp last month, Chartrand and brakeman Jason Fridrick qualified to compete at the 2009 Canadian Bobsleigh Championships, March 22 and 23 at the Whistler track. The competition also featured the competitive bobsleigh debut of CFL star Jesse Lumsden, who raced with legendary veteran Pierre Lueders to win the two-man event.

But Chartrand crashed hard in a training run three days before the race, flipping the sled in Corner 6 and riding the rest of the 1,450-metre track upside down. Knocked out for about five seconds during the experience, Chartrand said his EMR staff had to help him off the track on a spinal board.

Fridrick was OK, but Chartrand was too stiff to compete for the rest of the week.

"There's always next year," he said.

At "a young 45," Chartrand said he'd like to try to break into the competitive side of the sport, looking to increase his run volume and dryland training, and to try his hand during recruitment camps. He thinks that could also improve his chances to be a better pay-ride pilot.

"This whole track is going to be great for everybody, (including) locals that are going to be able to discover skeleton, luge and bobsled," Chartrand said.

On the flip side, Christina Smith made it through her approximately two weeks of sliding at the Whistler track in the lead-up to the Canadian championships without a crash.

Smith is a true pioneer of women's bobsleigh. She was the first female pilot to represent Canada at the Olympics, sliding in the sport's Olympic debut in 2002, and is a World Cup medalist and 12-year veteran of the national team.

Smith retired from the sport in 2004, working on her entrepreneurial career and founding an athlete mentorship program called PUSHSTART International, and becoming the manager of the French women's bobsleigh team for the season that just ended.

After being hired as CTV's women's bobsleigh analyst for the 2010 Olympics, Smith successfully pitched to the network the idea of making a documentary based around her return to sliding to compete on the Whistler track at the Canadian championships.

Smith said she wanted to show a behind-the-scenes view of the intense sport, even "living and breathing the anxieties and fears" that accompany the process of learning to race on the fastest track in the world. She thrilled at the thought of reconnecting with the sport she loves on a "masterful" track, which she said is one of the fastest, steepest and most challenging courses in the world.

"Every run was a blessing," Smith said.

Bolstered by going through the process with Heather Petersen, whom Smith called the "phenomenal brakewoman that kept me grounded," and sponsorship support from organizations such as the Fairmont Chateau Whistler, Smith and Petersen sped their way to a podium finish in the women's event.

The pair reached speeds of around 139 kilometres per hour, and gained the support of track staff and spectators around the track for their positive attitudes and constant smiles, Smith said.

"It was a beautiful fairy-tale ending when we won the bronze medal," Smith said. While an athletic comeback is "the furthest thing from my life," Smith said, she's now seeking sponsorship or accommodations help to move to Whistler leading up to the Games and her TV role.

She said she would like to be on the ground to connect with the community, perhaps endorsing local companies or leading instruction in areas such as fitness or motivational speaking.

Smith said she has been impressed by "the warmth of the people here (They're) my kind of people."

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