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Spencer seeks more success in 'transition year'

Pemberton luger moving up a level in Junior World Cup competition for 2014



Jenna Spencer isn't one to brag.

The Pemberton teen has established herself as one of the world's rising young stars in luge, having finished ranked in the top four of Youth A women's competition on the Junior World Cup circuit each of the past two years. Last winter, the 17 year old even led her category standings late in the season before ultimately settling for second place.

But it's not something she's about to broadcast.

"I don't like to talk about it," Spencer said shyly before an Oct. 31 training run at the Whistler Sliding Centre.

"If people bring it up, (I will), but I don't want to just be like, 'Yeah, I'm second in the world.' I don't really like saying that. It's not really my thing."

But modesty, said Robert Fegg, definitely is Spencer's thing.

"She's famous for underplaying (her success) a little bit, low-balling it," laughed Fegg, head coach of Canada's junior luge team. "But that shows her character."

Fegg described Spencer as the most professional athlete he's working with right now, and that's just one of the reasons why he thinks she's ready for a new challenge this year. Although Spencer still has one year of Youth A eligibility remaining, she'll be making the move up to race at the Junior level this winter, putting her amongst older and more experienced international sliders.

"This is definitely a transition year for me," said Spencer, who is pre-selected to the junior national team. "I'm not expecting any big results. I'm expecting top 15 if I'm lucky. I'm just going to go out there and do the best I can, because that's all I can do.

"I'm just trying to take baby steps because it's hard to look at the whole picture right now. It's a little overwhelming."

But for Fegg, the big picture is quite clear — Spencer's international results over the past two years "are really significant," particularly as she arrived at a time when good finishes were tough to come by for young Canadian lugers.

"The international field (of youth and junior racers has become) stronger as well, so in that matter her success counts even more," said Fegg. "It's not as easy as it was a couple of years ago."

A past world champion in dragon boat racing, Spencer is fully committed to luge these days and spent much of her offseason in the gym working towards quicker start times. She'll have plenty more time on ice to keep working on her starts before races get underway, as the Canadian team will not be travelling over to Europe for any of the three Junior World Cup events before Christmas.

Spencer said she's thankful to have a reduced racing schedule this year, as it will allow her to remain focused on other things like her high school graduation coming up in 2014. But she'll also get a chance to race on some of her favourite European tracks in the new year, including the one at Igls, Austria, where she notched her first-ever Junior World Cup podium during the 2011-12 season.

"I love it there, so I'm really excited," said Spencer. "I'm actually enjoying how this season is working out."

Modest as she may be, Spencer admitted that her strong finishes have given her some encouragement that she's headed in the right direction.

"It gives me a boost of confidence to believe in myself, and that I do know what I'm doing and I'm on the right path to go somewhere, potentially," she said.

For Spencer, that path will hopefully lead through Pyeongchang, South Korea, when it hosts the Winter Olympics in 2018. It's a long-term goal that Spencer said she has to keep in sight without getting too far ahead of herself.

"Seeing all my friends who are going to Sochi, I'm like, 'Oh, I want to be there, too.' It's hard not to just want to jump right into Korea," she said. "Right now, that's what I want to work towards. There's a finish for me and right now, that's where it is."

In many ways, Spencer has acted as a pioneer for the other young B.C. lugers coming up behind her. The plan for 2014 is to take at least four more athletes based out of Whistler over to Europe to race at the Youth A level, and Fegg said that's a testament to a B.C. program headed up by coach Matt McMurray that is quickly producing talent. Reid Watts, Matt Riddle, Nicole Pidperyhora and Veronica Ravenna are just a few of the Sea to Sky sliders who could see themselves racing overseas for the first time this season.

"(McMurray is) passionate about developing the program and the kids coming up," said Fegg, adding that the population base to draw from is tiny compared to Calgary. "It's basically Pemberton, Whistler and Squamish."

A fourth and final junior seeding race is scheduled for Sunday, Nov. 10 at the Whistler Sliding Centre, while junior national team selections will be ongoing until mid-December.