Winter Olympians viewing this season's adversity as good training for Beijing

Being able to endure in one of the most unknown times in recent history is going to be as much a part of the story of Canadian Olympians as the competition at the Beijing Games. 

Disruption of schedules has forced athletes to make adjustments on the fly

Justin Kripps and his four-man bobsleigh team feel they made the wisest choice in skipping competition in Europe prior to the new year because of the ongoing pandemic. (Viesturs Lacis)

So much about what it means to be an Olympian, to compete at the highest level of sport, is about problem solving. 

Throughout the career of a high-performance athlete there will undoubtedly be setbacks; whether that comes in the way of falling on the ice or track in the midst of a big race, injuries or heartbreaking defeats, there's no getting around adversity in the pursuit of becoming a champion.

Those few who have persevered and stood atop the podium at the Games all have stories of how they overcame or endured against the odds.

But this, a pandemic that has shut down rinks and ski hills and ovals and bobsleigh tracks around the world, is unlike anything an athlete could have ever prepared for. And being able to endure in one of the most unknown times in recent history is going to be as much a part of the story of this current group of Olympians as the competition itself. 

With just one year to go until the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, Canadian winter athletes have accepted their fate in a way that's uncommon to how they're wired. 

With most of their training centres closed for the majority of their seasons, Canadian athletes have had to get creative. They've had to problem solve. 

Speed skaters have taken to frozen lakes in Alberta. Curlers have built backyard rinks, some of them on ponds, just to get in some slides. 

In a normal summer, Canadian snowboarders and skiers would trek to B.C.'s Whistler and get in valuable training runs on a slowly shrinking glacier  Instead, many of them went to a hill in the Laurentians in Quebec where they've configured a setup that allows them to ski and snowboard down a hill and then land into air bags.

And Canada's bobsledders turned a teammate's garage into a fitness centre. 

All of this to say, the athletes wanted to be doing something, anything, to make it feel like they weren't falling behind the rest of the world — because in many places around the globe athletes had been able to get back to their training and attend competitions. 

"It's hard to sit at home and watch the races you should be in," Canadian bobsleigh pilot Justin Kripps told CBC Sports. 

Canadian bobsleigh pilot Justin Kripps and his team were thrilled to be back in competition. (Viesturs Lacis)

'Weird watching races'

Canada's bobsleigh team made the difficult decision to sit out the first half of the World Cup season. They just didn't feel it was safe enough this past fall to head over to Europe to compete. So Kripps, a 2018 Olympic champion in the two-man event, was asked to do colour commentary for one of the events broadcast on CBC Sports.

"It's totally weird to watch the races and be thinking, I'd be sitting in second at this point," he said. "The races are what we live for. It's a weird feeling watching those races."

They were close to going. Kripps had even sent his sled over to Latvia. But the team pulled out just eight days before races started. The taste of competition was so close and yet Kripps said the team showed incredible restraint and maturity to stay back. He and his four-man team are now competing in Europe for the season's second half and sit third in the standings.

"The big thing we talked about as a team is just finding a way to come out of this season with some momentum. It definitely feels like the right decision. We came out hot," Kripps said.

But a lot of their success started in the fall. Kripps' teammate, Ben Coakwell, decided to turn his garage into a training facility so that the team could continue to build toward the second half. They had a squat rack, treadmill, 300 kilograms of weights. It's all they needed. 

"We call his gym the Ben Sports Institute," Kripps said. "It's insulated and it's got a stereo in there. It's all you need."

On the women's side, Canada's bobsleigh team is perhaps the deepest its ever been. Cynthia Appiah, Alysia Rissling and Melissa Lotholz are forging their way into the top piloting spots in the world. 

This past week, Lotholz won bronze, securing Canada's first medal in the monobob event. 

And like her male teammates, she also got creative in preparation for the second half of the season. Lotholz grew up on a farm northwest of Edmonton. She went back there when the pandemic hit and got back to the basics. 

"It was cool for me to be at home on the farm. This is where I learned to work hard and finding solutions because you can't control the weather. You plant your crop and work hard and hope there's a harvest," she said. 

Finding workout equipment wasn't a problem with heavy machinery at every turn. 

Melissa Lotholz won bronze in a recent monobob race in Austria. (VIESTURS LACIS | REKORDS)

'Challenge of getting creative'

"My workouts were tire flips with tractor tires, squatting with oil pails and I got this old-school set of those weights with sand in it," Lotholz said, laughing. "I took a piece of scrap metal, grinded down the bar so the weights fit on it, and then hooked it up to the tractor for resistance."

Lotholz says growing up on a farm, in retrospect, taught her a lot about being an athlete and how to handle a pandemic by learning to control the things you can control. 

"It makes you a stronger athlete," she said. "I've been on the national bobsled team for seven years and as an athlete you fall into a pattern. I think part of me enjoyed the challenge of getting creative with my workouts."

While some teams, including the bobsleigh athletes, have been able to compete this past month, Canada's snowboarders have been hit hard these past couple months. 

I think part of me enjoyed the challenge of getting creative with my workouts.- Melissa Lotholz

They weren't able to train in the summer, the only winter sport nation that didn't have a hill to practice on in June, July and August. The team departed to Switzerland in September for a couple of training weeks. 

Then in December and early January they took to Canada Olympic Park in Calgary for more time on the hill. They even brought in some of the world's best course and jump-makers so the snowboarders had the best situation to train in.

That was all leading to an international competition in Switzerland set for mid-January. While some of the athletes were able to compete, the slopestyle team including Mark McMorris, Max Parrot and Seb Toutant, were not. 

Mark McMorris and Canada's snowboard slopestyle team have had limited opportunities to train and compete. McMorris had to pull out of the recent X Games after testing positive for COVID-19. (Getty Images)

Limited competitions

Two members of the team tested positive for COVID-19 ending any chance of the men's slopestyle athletes to compete. 

It wouldn't have stung that much, with a number of events planned for a bubble in Calgary in February and March. However, it was shut down by officials. Now it's turning into a season with very limited competitions for the snowboarding team.

"This is quite unique. I don't think anyone has seen anything that can compare to this," said Jean-François Rapatel, Snowboard Canada's high-performance director.

Rapatel has been tasked with keeping the team focused and reminding them they have a plan in place despite not being able to compete the way they would like. He said the team is trying to find ways to use the downtime to their advantage by putting in valuable training time. 

"There's no point in getting frustrated. We're all in the same boat," he said. 

There might be a couple of late-season events the team will be able to compete in, including a world championship. But even if that doesn't happen, Rapatel said it won't affect how they select their team next December.

"At this point I am confident. The system will adapt to ensure the right things are done," he said. "It's all about being agile. Adapting to what's thrown at you. I feel we've done a great job."

So while these have been painful past few months for winter athletes, who like everyone else, have been so desperately wanting to get back to their passions, there's a growing sense among many of the Canadian Olympians that maybe having to find a different way could just lead to podium performances in Beijing. 

In the few examples, speed skating, bobsleigh, snowboarding, skiing and skeleton and luge, that already seems to be the case. 

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