Road To The Olympic Games

Winter Sports

Speed thrills: How Canada's athletes overcome their fears for Olympic glory

The mind-boggling speeds and incomparable heights Canada's winter athletes reach in pursuit of Olympic gold can appear unfathomable. If this seems scary to you don't worry, it scares them, too.

'For me I think the biggest fear is not having the catastrophic crashes,' says luger Tristan Walker

Snowboard cross racer Chris Robanske, centre, is terrified of the heights he can reach, but the Canadian still loves the thrill of it all. (David Ramos/Getty Images)

You have probably sat on your couch at home and marvelled. 

The mind-boggling speeds and incomparable heights Canada's winter athletes reach in pursuit of Olympic gold can appear unfathomable.

Most people can't imagine hurdling down an icy mountain or strapping themselves to a snowboard, launching hundreds of feet into the air. It would simply be too scary, and you're not alone. Canada's most elite winter warriors get scared, too.

For some athletes, their fears are most intense in the days leading up to a competition. For others, it's most acute in the moments just before an event.

Chris Robanske competes in snowboard cross. He represented Canada at the 2014 Sochi Olympics and has six World Cup podiums in his career. For those not familiar with snowboard cross, think of it like a BMX bike race but with riders on snowboards, travelling over slick snow rather than dirt.

"Oh I'm terrified of snowboard cross. No, it scares me, like gives me chills down my bones but I love it," Robanske confesses.

Robanske has good reason to be wary. He has managed to stay upright in a sport known for its crashes. But during a 2011 race, he fell to the ground from more than 40 feet in the air, causing numerous vertebrae fractures.

Robanske has gone on to enjoy a successful international career but the crash remains in his mind.

"It all depends on how you're feeling that day, everyone's so different," Robanske explains. "Either I'm shaking uncontrollably trying to just get myself to relax and calm down and believe in the ability that I have, and all the hard work that I put in.

"Some days you have self-doubt. I mean everyone has doubt right? And so you need to pump yourself up, have some like strong, powerful self-talk. It's all relevant to the day."

FIS Snowboard Cross World Cup race in Sunny Valley, Russia. 2:47

Speeding ticket

If Canadian luger Tristan Walker took his sled for a ride on any Canadian highway, he would undoubtedly get a speeding ticket.

Luge is a sport that is all about speed. Athletes like Walker reach speeds of around 140 kilometres per hour, protected only by a thin suit and a helmet.

The sled is like a toboggan, except with slick medal runners. And instead of a gradual slope, imagine hurdling down an icy track, designed to propel your sled as fast as possible to the bottom.

"For me I think the biggest fear is not having the catastrophic crashes…they happen and it's just one of those sports," Walker acknowledges. "People always ask if the sport is safe, and it's as safe as it can be. No one's ever buckled into the front seat of a race car and said nothing ever can possibly go wrong."

When the object of your chosen sport is to go as fast as possible, you have to embrace speed, almost seek it out.

"I've always been a bit of a daredevil. Any time growing up, skiing or riding my bike, I was always in a tuck, down the hill as fast as I possibly could. So, I definitely describe myself as an adrenaline junkie and that's part of the allure of the sport for me for sure."

Alex Gough, Mitchel Malyk, Tristan Walker and Justin Snith captured a silver medal after posting a time of 2:11.025 in the team relay at the FIL Luge World Cup in Innsbruck, Austria. 3:35

Luge slow compared to downhill skiing

It's hard to believe but luge is slow compared to downhill skiing, where racers often reach speeds in excess of 150 km/h.

Canadian downhill skier Manual Osborne-Paradis embraces the speed. He says skiing "scared" can make an already risky sport even more dangerous.

"Fear is totally part of it. And every race you're scared. Lots of our training is to just become less scared," he explains. "You train just to become more comfortable with the speed. And then once you're comfortable with it, it just doesn't seem as scary. And when it's not as scary you ski more confidently."

"It's a fine line. The best guys are just that much better at going to that limit and never crossing it."

Osborne-Paradis has figured out a successful formula. The 33 year-old recently captured a bronze medal at a World Cup super-G event. And next year in Pyeongchang, South Korea, he is slated to represent Canada at his fourth Olympics.

Canadian bobsleigh driver Chris Spring's fear lingers from the memories of a horrific 2012 crash during a training run in Germany.

"I still think about that today actually. Like every run that I take it's still like a reminder of this accident, you know and it could've gone a lot worse," Spring recalls. "There could have been deaths that day and we're lucky that we all somewhat walked away with minimal [but] life-changing injuries."

Spring's comeback has been slow and steady. He thought many times about walking away but with the help of coaches, he has stayed in the sled. This past weekend in Whistler, B.C., along with partner Neville Wright, Spring captured the gold medal in the two-man bobsleigh event.

Chris Spring, front, knows first-hand how dangerous speeding down a bobsled hill can be. (Martin Rose/Bongarts/Getty Images)

It's successes like these that can push aside the fears that remain from that 2012 crash, even if it's just temporary.

"The older I get the more I think that there's so many more things important in life than sport," Spring says. "If I crash again and it's as horrific or worse than what happened before then that can take away from things I want to do for the rest of my life.

"Every run I just get that little tiny bit more scared of what if."

About the Author

Jamie Strashin is a native Torontonian whose latest stop is the CBC Sports department. Before, he spent 15 years covering everything from city hall to courts and breaking news as a reporter for CBC News. He has also worked in Brandon, Man., and Calgary. Follow him on Twitter @StrashinCBC

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