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National luge team trains at sliding centre

Young lugers starting a brand-new post-Olympic cycle



Their styles, admittedly, are the exact opposite.

And yet, Canadian lugers John Fennell and Mitchel Malyk seem to find themselves tied to one another, especially in the standings.

Malyk is the slow starter of the group, gaining speed as each race progresses. Fennell, on the other hand, opens well but experiences hesitation when he's on the track.

Both of the 19-year-old Calgarians are in town training at the Whistler Sliding Centre (WSC) as the cycle for the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea dawns.

After a break following the 2014 Sochi, Russia, Winter Olympics, both began getting ramped up for the coming season in late April. Fennell and Malyk are both well into the swing of things for the upcoming season, having completed their second of three national team selection races over the weekend at the WSC. The third will take place next weekend in Calgary.

"Mitchel's a more confident slider — he's just restricted by his start — whereas I'm the exact opposite — I have a quick start and my sliding slows me down," Fennell explained. "He's the kind of person who will go down the track and is the first to move upwards. I'm more cautious. I'll take my time.

"I'm not saying one's better than the other — it's just a different approach."

Fennell cites a broken ankle he sustained when he was 16, causing him to miss half a season, as the source of his slowdown.

"It's where the issues with my confidence in my sliding come from," he said. "It's interesting when you realize that you aren't invincible anymore, that you are perfectly vulnerable to every injury all the time, and that's a hard thing to (realize) when you're winging yourself down an ice track.

"It was a personal choice to realize I am vulnerable, but I have the skills and ability to overcome that, to succeed at what I want to do."

Fennell admitted it was frustrating being injured at home in Alberta while Malyk continued the season in Europe, even borrowing his sled at points.

Both made their Olympic debuts as 18-year-olds in February in Sochi, where Malyk was 26th and Fennell 27th.

Fennell said lugers can compete into their early 40s, as was the case in Sochi – "they're old enough to be your dad." He feels their best years are to come, as luge isn't necessarily as physically taxing as some other sports.

"The Olympics were a very interesting time for us, because it put it into perspective that we're already at an elite level," Fennell said. "We don't want to just compete anymore. We want to be the best.

"We're in a sport where experience makes you better."

Noting they were tied through the first two races, both Fennell and Malyk are confident about making Canada's senior team full time for the second year in a row when the teams are officially announced in early November.

Both first joined the national team in the latter half of the 2012-13 season, and were able to compete in the World Championships in Whistler that year where Fennell was 25th and Malyk was 26th.

"It was a good precursor for the Olympics because it wasn't a junior race anymore. We needed to be the best in the world," Fennell said.

Both appreciated the opportunity to get a taste of the senior team before the Olympic qualifying season, especially with a focus on Whistler, where they get the bulk of their training runs.

Fennell, in particular, said he's been coming here to train since he was 12 and Malyk made his first trip a couple years later.

Working in the duo's favour is an increase in funding to lugers from Own the Podium. The program will receive $1.02 million this winter alone after allotments of $3.37 million during the Sochi Quadrennial and $2.82 million during the Vancouver Quadrennial.

Fennell and Malyk are at the younger end of the Canadian Luge Association's spectrum, while the other men's singles racer, Sam Edney, at 30, is at the opposite end. The age range for last year's women's singles team is 21 to 27, while men's doubles riders Justin Snith and Tristan Walker will both be 23 by the time the calendar flips in January.

"We have a very solid foundation of people who have changed the sport and are continuously improving, and blazing a path for us," Fennell said. "It's good to see that they are recognizing that we are growing and improving constantly. I'm glad to see that Own the Podium did that for us."

Fennell and Malyk are excited to be part of an up-and-coming team, and have praised three-time Olympian Edney and the others for the help in getting them grounded.

"We look to them a lot for advice on any track lines or equipment and they've definitely been a huge help in moving us forward," Malyk said. "Having that age gap is probably one of the most positive things on our team. They lead us and they tell us what to avoid."

Malyk isn't worried about maintaining focus in reaching for the golden rings that are hanging nearly four years away.

"I think it's going to come quick," he said of the Pyeongchang Games. "I remember watching Vancouver and then boom, I'm at Sochi. Four years is going to be nothing for us."

That said, though, Fennell realizes numerous factors can change over the course of four years, including injuries and new competitors coming out of the woodwork.

"It's really hard to predict in the future, so we try not to do that," he said. "It's a 'put your head down and work'



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