Canadian athletes had an impressive medal haul in skeleton action held at Whistler Sliding Centre (WSC) last weekend.
Athletes on both the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation (FIBT) Intercontinental Cup (IC) and North American Cup (NAC) loop took part in two races apiece on Jan. 16 and 17. The races were the fifth and sixth of the season for both divisions. In terms of competition, the IC is sandwiched between the top-level World Cup and the NAC and European Cup circuits.
Over the course of the two days at the two levels, Canadian sliders hauled off 10 medals including a pair of golds.
LaBerge tops IC race
On Saturday, Jan. 17, Calgary's Jaclyn LaBerge blazed through both heats with the top time to win gold in the FIBT IC women's race.
LaBerge posted a combined time of one minute, 49.39 seconds to hold off Russia's Olga Potylitsina by 0.35 seconds. Brandon, Man.'s Cassie Hawrysh followed up Friday's silver with a bronze on Saturday, placing 0.41 seconds behind her teammate. 2014 national champion Madison Charney, the other Canadian in the race, placed eighth.
"This race went really well. I was really relaxed today," said LaBerge, 30, who is now ranked 10th in IC competition this season. "Yesterday, the first run went well, but I fell back a bit. But today was a new day."
The conditions were snowy for Saturday's Intercontinental Cup heats, held in the late morning and early afternoon, though crews worked diligently to keep the track clear. The precipitation subsided by the time the North American Cup races were ready to go.
LaBerge noted the track is only in the open up until the first turn, and is otherwise covered. Her plan to take a "really quiet" approach through the half-inch of snow up until the first corner paid off.
"The track crew did a really good job of keeping the grooves clean, so that was really good," LaBerge said. "I'm not the fastest starter in the field, but I managed to power through it. It's just focusing on what you can control and what you can't, and you can't control the snow."
In the Jan. 16 race, in addition to Hawrysh's silver, LaBerge was fourth and Charney was seventh. Great Britain's Donna Creighton took the gold with a time of 1:49.16, 0.75 seconds ahead of Hawrysh and 0.89 seconds up on bronze winner Yulia Kanakiva of Russia.
Hawrysh was generally pleased with how she raced, but will look back on her fourth and final run of the weekend as a lost opportunity. She was just 0.07 seconds behind LaBerge, but lost 0.34 seconds after "overdriving" in humid, sticky conditions on the next run to drop to third. All told, though, she'll take the medals and run in a season where her best previous finish on the circuit was a ninth-place showing at Winterberg, Germany.
"These are my best two finishes of the year, so I'm pleased," she said. "Overdriving on my second run, that's my mistake. It's probably a little more grip than I was ready for. You live and learn. These are all things that you know but you have to remember each time."
Creighton, the top-ranked women's slider on the IC circuit this season, credited a strong training session here with her win and a subsequent sixth-place showing.
"This is one of my favourite tracks. I like the speed and the high-pressure corners," she said. "It suits my style of driving."
Creighton noted the times in competition were quicker than they had been in training, and praised the track workers for maintaining a quality run.
Conditions were a bit warmer in Friday's races, maximizing at 4.9 C compared to 1.4 C on Saturday.
Russian Batuev sweeps
On the men's side, Russian Anton Batuev ran away with both IC gold medals. In the second race, Batuev held a three-tenths of a second advantage over teammate Pavel Kulikov after the first heat. He built on it further in the second heat to eventually beat his countryman by 0.36 seconds with a combined 1:46.36. Canadian Paul Fraser repeated as the bronze medallist with a 1:47.28, holding former Whistler resident Patrick Rooney off the podium by just 0.03 seconds. Greg Rafter, the other Canadian, was 11th. The strong results helped launch Fraser into the IC overall lead, while Rooney jumped up to sixth overall.
Batuev also held a three-tenths of a second lead after the first heat the day before, this time over Italian Joseph Cecchini, who fell off the pace and finished fourth. After Batuev blazed to a 1:40.42 time, Kulikov's second run moved him up to second, while Fraser booted his way up to third, 1.10 seconds back. Rafter placed fifth and Rooney was sixth.
Batuev, who had only raced one of the previous four IC races this season and had competed at the World Cup level this season, moved up to seventh in the IC rankings in the process. With Kulikov translating, Batuev said the Whistler track is a tough one, but credited "stability" on his sled for his success.
"(I was) feeling great," Batuev said through Kulikov. "It's a difficult track, fast as well."
Rahneva earns NAC gold
In the NAC competition, Ottawa's Mirela Rahneva, meanwhile, emerged as Canada's second golden girl on Saturday. She was 0.18 seconds behind American Lauren Salter after the first heat, but posted the race's best single-run time of 56.36 seconds to finish with a combined 1:52.91, 0.30 seconds ahead of Salter. Canada took yet another medal with Grace Dafoe's second bronze in as many days, 0.66 seconds off Rahneva's pace.
Rahneva was fourth the day before in a race where Samantha Culiver blazed through her second run to surge past fellow American Salter to take gold by 0.12 seconds. Dafoe was 1.19 seconds behind.
Lastly, West Sharkey, who trains at the WSC, put that knowledge to good use, earning silver in the North American Cup men's race on Jan. 17. Sharkey finished 1.22 seconds behind American Austin McCrary's 1:49.48. Sweden's Linus Ottosson claimed the bronze, 1.38 seconds behind McCrary.
Canadians Ben Roberts, Taylor Purdy and Alex Hanssen finished sixth, seventh and eighth, respectively.
The previous day, American Trent Kraychir's combined 1:51.11 allowed him to hold off countryman McCrary and Hanssen by 0.41 and 1.22 seconds, respectively. Canadians Purdy, Sharkey and Roberts were, in order, fourth, eighth, and ninth.
The schedule for both circuits resumes in Calgary next weekend.
Overcoming funding loss
With Own the Podium recommending only $50,000 in funding for this year after it received over $3.5 million in each of the last two quadrennials, skeleton athletes are working to prove themselves worthy of a boost heading into the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea.
But for now, LaBerge said she is placing more focus on cutting costs than fundraising by such measures as sharing rooms. She said there seems to be a sense of unity among the athletes that's stronger than before.
"The loss in funding is doing a good job actually bringing us together a bit more, trying to find solution to it," she said. "We've really had to gather together. It's a financial loss, but our team is doing a really good job of being united."
Hawrysh said her main means of fundraising is finding sponsors, and she's constantly on the hunt. With all the challenges the athletes have faced, she's proud of the overall results on the weekend.
"We're on our own dime, and it's awesome to see that we can get here and get on the podium," Hawrysh said.
IC competitor Patrick Rooney, a construction project management student at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, said athletes would find a way to make things work even in the face of lost dollars.
"It puts more financial damper on the athletes themselves, but we work in the summer, we save money, and we love this sport," he said. "We'll pay anything for it, and we just hope funding comes back eventually.
"They have to figure out financials before and it should all work out by the next Olympics."