Canada's veteran lugers become mentors as youth movement sweeps national team
Relay team of Walker, Snith, Graham, Watts won bronze in Whistler, B.C.
Veteran Canadian lugers Justin Snith and Tristan Walker are finding the job of mentoring the next generation of athletes a little bit difficult to accept.
"We're starting to feel old," said Snith, who is 26. His doubles partner, Walker, is 27.
When a fresh-faced national team hits the track in Calgary for the latest World Cup event on Friday, the three-time Olympians will be leading the way.
"Every week, we should easily be fighting for a top-five, if not a podium," Snith said. "We're here to lead by example and show all the young kids coming up that this is the way it should be, that you're fighting the best sleds in the world every single week."
There's an excitement around the squad right now, Snith added, and it's eye-opening for some of the younger athletes to witness what the veterans put in to excel.
Having an influx of young talent around has had a positive impact on some of the older athletes, too.
That was never clearer than at the previous World Cup event in Whistler, B.C., where a relay team featuring Snith, Walker and youngsters Kyla Graham and Reid Watts won bronze.
Coaching while competing
Snith and Walker have been doing some coaching with their greener teammates and said the experience has helped them look at their sport a bit differently.
"It's really just a matter of looking at it through a different lens," Snith said. "When you need to explain it to someone who doesn't necessarily see it the same way you do, you have to wrap your head around it in a different way."
The new perspective didn't translate into success on the track at the first World Cup event of the season in Igls, Austria, last week. Snith and Walker finished 12th with a two-run time of 1:20.487.
They also notched a first-place start time, which Walker said shows that they are ready to compete, even if the finish was "a bit of a let down."
The pair are coming off a historic season for the Canadian luge team, one that was capped with an outstanding performance at February's Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.
Alex Gough captured the country's first-ever Olympic medal in the sport with a bronze in the women's singles. Then Snith and Walker anchored a crew that slid to silver in the luge team relay.
Still looking for recognition
Despite the Olympic success, the team is still grinding to get recognition, especially from sponsors, Walker said.
"I was told growing up that you win an Olympic medal and get your face on a box of Wheaties and you're set," he said. "And that has really not been our experience since winning the medal."
Since the Olympics, Gough and several other national team stalwarts have retired from the sport, creating opportunities for up-and-coming athletes.
"It's a bit of a different year, for sure, with quite a few retirements," said the 19-year-old Watts, who went to his first Olympics in South Korea. "It's a young group so I went from being the rookie on the men's team to all of the sudden, I'm the old veteran now."
Watts finished 22nd in Austria at the first event with a time of 1:40.964. He was just .67 seconds back of Germany's Johannes Ludwig, who took home the first gold medal of the World Cup season.
"It wasn't the result I wanted," Watts said. "I made some small mistakes in my runs and it is such a hard track to be fast on. It's easy to make it down, but hard to be fast on it. It demands absolute perfection from the top to the bottom."
The young Canadian said there were still positives to be taken from the event, including improved start times. Watts said his starts were ranked 25th to 28th last season, but both of his times in Austria came in at 11th place.
Getting faster was a big goal for the teen, who put in two weight room sessions a day, five days a week throughout the off-season.
McRae set for debut
Canada's top female luger, Kim McRae, will make her season debut on home soil in Calgary on Friday.
McRae is only attending three events this season in an effort to commit more to studying and to take more down time in a post-Olympic year.
The 26-year-old finished fifth at the Winter Olympics in both Sochi and Pyeongchang.
Along with Graham, McRae will try to help the Canadian luging void created by Alex Gough's retirement after February's Games. Still, the 2018-2019 season is very much a rebuilding year for the Canadians — albeit one that got off to a shining start with relay bronze in Whistler.
The overwhelming favourite to win gold in Calgary is Germany's Natalie Geisenberger, the defending Olympic gold medallist who is undefeated so far this season. Teammate Julia Taubitz has won silver at every event, also.
With files from CBC Sports