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Young blood tops national race

Graham, Clarke claim Canadian titles at Whistler Sliding Centre

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Kyla Graham has a lot riding on her luge performances early in the 2018-19 season.

In fact, it's no exaggeration to say her future in the sport depends on it.

At 20, the Albertan has aged out of the junior program and needs to secure a spot on the national team. Graham's showing at the Whistler Sliding Centre during Canadian Championships on Saturday should give her chances a shot in the arm, as she captured the women's event with a two-run time of one minute, 18.35 seconds (1:18.35), edging fellow Calgarians Carolyn Maxwell and Brooke Apshkrum.

"This is a make-or-break year for me. If I don't make the senior team, then I'd be out of luge. It's a really important year for me, so these three races really meant a lot," Graham said. "I'm super happy to win this, and I hope it shows the coaches that I am able to race well.

"I'm happy to know that I can achieve results if I just don't focus on the end result of winning a race."

The chase isn't over yet, as a third and final selection race was slated for Wednesday, Oct. 24.

"That was our second selection race, as well as Canadian Championships. We're doing three selection races and the results coming out of those races determine whether or not I'll make the Canadian national team. That's the team I have to make," she said. "Hopefully my results help."

Graham added that she loves racing the speedy ice here in Whistler.

"I'm a driver, mostly. Some tracks are flowy, where you don't need to drive a lot, but Whistler, you need to put in a lot of driving, and I really like that," she said.

On the men's side, Albertan Colton Clarke pulled off a bit of an upset. From a higher start height, the 16-year-old won in a two-run time of 1:41.75, nipping a pair of locals in Reid Watts and Matt Riddle, who took second and third, respectively. He acknowledged he wasn't entering the race expecting to win, but was thrilled to capture his first national title while still in high school.

"It means a lot. I just wanted to put down two clean runs and whatever was going to happen was going to happen," Clarke said.

Clarke, who will race most of the season on the junior circuit, is angling to prove himself worthy of a World Cup start or two this season, as he said the coaching staff has considered entering him in the season-opening race in Igls, Austria and at one of the Canadian stops this year.

Watts, who took 12th in the Olympics in February, acknowledged feeling a "post-Olympics slump" and was disappointed in his showing.

"Things did not go as planned," he said. "I'm not feeling as confident in my sliding ability as I was this time last year."

However, after sitting down with the coaching staff following Saturday's race, Watts said they've encouraged him to take a back-to-basics approach and to focus on the nuts and bolts of sliding and with that, the speed will return.

Watts also said he has seen improvement in some facets of his execution—namely his starts have been faster—but he knows he needs to tighten up once he's actually loaded onto his sled.

The doubles team of Tristan Walker and Justin Snith claimed its ninth-consecutive title in that event.

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