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The confounding world of doubles luge

The Globe and Mail
By Jeff Blair, Posted Sunday, December 13, 2009 11:25 AM ET
www.ctvolympics.ca

Let's get the juvenile stuff out of the way initially, okay? Yes, those are two guys in skin-tight suits sitting on top of each other in doubles luge and ... "There's a seat," Tristan Walker says with a laugh, before the matter is pursued any further.

Canada's luge team is home for training in Whistler and family time before returning to Europe on Boxing Day to continue their World Cup season, and among the aspects of the year that pleases coach Wolfgang Staudinger is the fact that Canada's teenaged doubles team of Walker, 18, and Justin Snith, 17, have accumulated strong enough finishes to qualify for the Vancouver Olympics. The formal announcement is expected Saturday, Dec. 19.

To put that in context: they've been sliding together for two years - "next to nothing in sliding," Staudinger said - and on the World Cup and Nations Cup they have faced competitors who have been racing longer than either of them has been alive. Because they are juniors, they must qualify for each World Cup event in a Nations Cup race that is held on the same weekend.

Brothers Chris and Mike Moffat are the top-ranked Canadian unit and they are sage veterans compared to Walker and Snith, who finished ahead of the Moffats in Altenberg, Germany.

Walker, from Cochrane, Alta., was racing singles less than two years ago on the World Cup junior circuit, when the only Canadian junior team broke up. Snith, a Calgarian, says it was a matter of "you and you, you're a doubles team." Walker says there was a little less coercion involved.

"We were like: yeah, we'll throw a sled together and try it," Walker said. "We got some mismatched pieces from different sleds, threw it together and ended up winning bronze medal."

Walker still has visions of sliding in singles competition. It can be done in junior competition, but he says that's all but impossible in the World Cup. Staudinger is candid in his assessment of the two: forming up as a junior team was, he said, "the right move," for them.

Staudinger, a bronze medallist for Germany in doubles with partner Thomas Schwab, says that they are "a little rough around the edges" but, in the next breath, says they have good potential "once they become grown men."

Both sliders are aware of the difference physically compared to more mature sliders. Snith said that it would be "ideal" for him to put on 20-25 pounds.

If luge is among the least-understood sports in North America, doubles luge is absolutely confounding. (Remember: there is a seat). When a team is put together, the bigger of the two men goes on top. The bottom slider uses his shoulders to control the sled. The top man uses his feet. In a World Cup race at Altenberg earlier this month, Walker earned kudos from Staudinger for dropping his feet flat on the ice to prevent the sled from caroming into the wall.

Staudinger says that a doubles team that isn't in sync is like having a passenger on the back of a motorcycle "not following the curves."

He says a good doubles team takes time to develop, and to put it in context he says simply that: "The front [top] man indicates when it's time to turn, the bottom man initiates it. So, you need to work together as one."

They are a refreshing pair, admitting it's "cool" to be qualified for the Olympics but also acknowledging they sort of knew it was in the works before they officially made it in Altenberg.

"Funny, but people at home kept asking me: You're going to the Olympics, right?' I was always, you know: I might," Walker said. "It's pretty cool, when you think of all the athletes in different sports who never had a chance to be in the Olympics."