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Alberta a winter sports mecca in lead-up to 2010 Olympics

By Vicki Hall, Calgary Herald
November 17, 2009 12:26 PM

CALGARY — The 2010 Winter Olympics officially belong to Vancouver-Whistler.

Alberta gets that.

But the formerly booming province on the other side of the Rocky Mountains wants a piece of the action.

And it's coming. Fast.

Most of the 2010 Olympics facilities on the West Coast are scheduled for closure this winter to allow organizers to make final preparations for the big event.

In the meantime neighbouring Alberta is set to welcome the most dominant winter athletes on the globe on the stretch run to the five-ring circus.

Alberta will host seven World Cup events — men's and women's downhill, luge, long-track speedskating, freestyle skiing, snowboard and cross-country skiing — in the lead-up to the Vancouver Games.

"Call it the Olympics without the hassle," said cross-country skier Sara Renner, a silver medallist at the 2006 Winter Games. "You get Olympic-calibre competition without all the security lineups and the difficulty getting tickets and all that.

"You can actually get close to the athletes at a World Cup."

In a similar vein, Edmonton welcomes the Canadian Curling Trials — perhaps more competitive than the Olympics themselves — from Dec. 6 to 13 at Rexall Place. The event pits world champion Kevin Martin versus former world champions Randy Ferbey and Glen Howard, among others, in the quest to represent Canada on the ultimate stage.

"There will be what I call the pre-Olympics, and we're staging it here," said Cindy Ady, minister of Alberta tourism, parks and recreation. "The world is heading here to compete.

"We're the closest venue to the Whistler site. We're having the World Cups here, so the athletes (are) going to be here honing their skills. . . . We're going to get quite a show here in Alberta."

Alberta played host to just three World Cup events last year. So the schedule this year represents a remarkable reversal of fortune for the province that proudly welcomed the world to Canada's first Winter Olympics in 1988.

"People don't realize what an opportunity this is," said Jeff Christie, Canada's best medal hope in men's luge. "From what I know, no other province or area in the world has this many World Cups. Everyone comes to Calgary or Alberta. It's just a straight legacy from the '88 Games.

"The Olympics are in Vancouver, but they're coming through Calgary."

Christie and his fellow toboggan specialists launch the World Cup season Friday on their home track at Canada Olympic Park.

"You have no idea how fast we go until you're standing there trackside," said veteran slider Regan Lauscher, of Red Deer, Alta.

Lying flat on their backs, feet first, on an open fibreglass sled, the daredevils hurl themselves down an icy track at speeds that would be illegal on the nearby Trans-Canada Highway.

"We travel around 125 kilometres an hour," said Calgary's Meaghan Simister. "That's a little slower than the Olympic track in Whistler which is about 140 km/h for women and 150 km/h for men.

"We try to be as fast as possible and as smooth as possible. It's really easy to see mistakes in luge, because there will usually be brushing of walls or feet down. All that adds time and cuts the aerodynamics."

After an absence of 20 years, the freestyle World Cup returns to Canada Olympic Park in Calgary Jan. 8-10. The venue hosted the Olympic debut of moguls and aerials — as demonstration events — back in 1988.

Two World Cups were held on the site — in 1989 and 1990 — before the event moved to Blackcomb Mountain in 1991. Now it's back

"In a way we've come full circle," said Peter Judge, chief executive officer of the Canadian Freestyle Ski Association. "The World Cup in January will be a critical qualification event for the 2010 Winter Olympics and the only one in Canada."

Calgary aerialist Warren Shouldice hopes to launch himself from the podium at Canada Olympic Park to Cypress Mountain as a certified 2010 Olympian.

"You're going to see us really jumping at our best, trying to just qualify for the Olympics and get our jumps ready," he said. "Most people in Calgary won't get a chance to watch the Olympics in person, but they can watch aerials at a World Cup where the level of competition is going to be every bit as good as it is at the Olympics."

Just lower key.