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Simister brings hometown advantage to Whistler

Luge star feeling confident as Games approachBy Andrew Mitchell

Meaghan Simister is starting to feel at home at the Whistler Sliding Centre, the newest and fastest artificial track in the world. When the 2010 Games roll around the luger says that "at home" feeling will help her to relax and react to anything that might happen to her as she makes her way down the course at speeds of 140 km/h.

But for Simister the home field advantage is more than the number of practice runs she got at the Whistler Sliding Centre last week. Thanks to a program by Petro Canada, her family from Alberta will be in Whistler to see her compete during the 2010 Games - something that has rarely happened in her nine years of racing, three with the junior team and six with the senior national team.

"Just the fact that I'm going to have my parents there, my brothers, aunts and uncles, along with crowds of Canadians out there, it's going to be awesome and I know we all hope to draw on that," Simister said. "It should be one of our best experiences ever at a race. We go to some cool races in Europe that bring out thousands of fans, but none of them are ever waving Canadian flags. It's going to be awesome to compete at home and really feel that support."

The Canadian Athlete Family Program, sponsored by Petro Canada, will assist roughly 500 family members of athletes competing at the 2010 Olympics and Paralympics, with each receiving up to four nights of accommodation, on-ground transportation, meals and competition tickets. The only thing it doesn't cover is the cost of a plane, train or bus ticket to Vancouver for the Games.

While Simister and her teammates still need to qualify there is a good feeling on the team these days.

"In luge if you're not seeded in the top-10 you have to qualify for the World Cup at the start of every season, and for us the first chance is the Nations Cup qualifying race (this weekend) at Canada Olympic Park," she said. "Hopefully that will go well, we'll be in the World Cup and we can build from there. We go over to Europe for two events over two weeks, then we're back in Whistler before Christmas for more training."

The Canadian results have improved substantially in recent years, trading up top-30 results from two seasons ago to top-10 results last year. The men's team has four World Cup calibre athletes competing for a possible three spots, while three Canadian women are also vying for a possible three spots at home.

The team has worked hard over the summer to get stronger, dividing their time between the gym and the ice rink, where they worked on sitting starts that are so crucial to winning runs.

The team is also keenly aware of who their main competition will be at the 2010 Games - a dominant German team that accounted for the top-three women on the tour last year and four out of the top five spots on the men's side.

"They have a lot of experience, and the support they get is huge - especially in financial support," said Simister. "Money plays a huge role, they have factories that make any type of equipment they want, and they always have the best of the best equipment.

"We've come a long way from where we were two seasons ago, but cost is still no object to them equipment-wise, where it still is an issue for us.... Up until this year we haven't had a proper facility to work on our sleds and now we do."

Canada's sleds have been given the Top Secret treatment for this year, which is a multi-million dollar program to improve the training systems and technologies for Canadian athletes to give them a split-second advantage. Everything from mental training exercises to waxing techniques is covered.

Another advantage the Germans have had is an abundance of training facilities.

"They also have four very difficult tracks in their country, while we only had one and now we have two. But the fact they have these four tracks just carries over," said Simister.

"Luge is also more popular. I started younger, when I was 13, but in Germany that's old. Most start when they are eight years old."

But while Canada has its hands full with Germany and other countries Simister says the team has come a long way in the last few years, and has a lot of potential heading into this season with new equipment and access to the Whistler Sliding Centre.

"We all love the track, but it's really fast and quite technical. Some other tracks you can make a few small mistakes and recover, but it's a lot harder at Whistler," she said.

During international training week the Canadian lugers were getting three runs a day maximum, but when the team is here for a camp it's usually four or five runs over two sessions a day.

"That's really beneficial... the more confident I feel the better I slide," she said. "You don't have to worry about specific lines here or there where you don't know what will happen, like on some European tracks I don't know as well. When you're going 140 km/h you want to know what to expect in every situation.

"I'm just really excited and happy for the season ahead, and really looking forward to it," she said. "I hope to make everyone proud."