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Designing the world's fastest track

CTVOlympics.ca
By Jennifer Lukas, CTVOlympics.ca
Posted Monday, December 14, 2009 10:41 AM ET

For a few days in 2004, Laurenz Kosichek's desk was crowded with binders bearing the logo of the Vancouver Olympic Organizing Committee.

"Read up," the architect was told, "The interview with VANOC is in a week."

Those words marked the beginning of one of the most challenging projects of Kosichek's career: designing the Whistler Sliding Centre.

On tracks around the world, Canada's bobsleigh and skeleton athletes have earned 10 medals in four World Cup competitions so far this season. The Canadian luge team is in the middle of one of its most successful seasons ever, with consistent finishes in the top-10.

Sunday marked just two months until the Sliding Centre hosts its first Olympic event (men's luge), and by the end of the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, there is a good chance that Canada will have won at least one medal on the track that has already proven itself as the fastest in the world.

Skeleton, luge and bobsleds have roared down Whistler's 1,450 metres of ice and concrete and have twisted through its 16 corners to the bottom. After hitting speeds over 150 km/h, most sleds have even crossed the finish line right-side-up.

Six years ago, however, the Whistler Sliding Centre was just a space marked out on Blackcomb Mountain... and a stack of binders sitting on an architect's desk.

As a senior associate with Stantec, Vancouver-based Kosichek had worked on a multitude of projects ahead of that week in 2004. As far as architects go, he was a jack of all trades. "A generalist," he called himself.

But while Kosichek had experience working on projects ranging from office towers to airports, he had never seen a bobsleigh race.

"I knew as much about bobsled, luge, as probably any average person does," Kosichek chuckled during an interview with CTVOlympics.ca, "Which was next to nothing."

There was also next to nothing to go on. In 2004, only 13 bobsleigh tracks existed in the world. Today, including the track in Whistler, there are 15. As is the nature with sliding venues, every track is different. Some are fast, some are technical, and some make even the most seasoned sliders nervous.

"Luckily, I think I'm a pretty quick study," Kosichek said, "But there is not one formula that works for everyone. Each track is unique. There are specific requirements from both the FIBT (the bobsleigh and skeleton international federation) and FIL (the international luge federation) around what the track has to have . . . but that's about it. And once you get beyond that, the rest of it is very site-specific."

The scarcity of working models aside, Kosichek's team had other things to worry about. They faced challenges like track longevity, refrigeration (to keep the ice from melting) and shading, plus a request from VANOC to keep the venue as environmentally friendly as possible.

"We're in a beautiful area and wanted to keep it a very beautiful area and make that track compliment that area as opposed to detract from it," said Craig Lehto, director of the Whistler Sliding Centre, "So we tried to carve it out of the mountainside and make a very small impact, as opposed to, you know, put it on a hill and clear it and manufacture off a lot of elevation and things like that."

The result was a track so integrated with the wilderness around it that athletes have been instructed to look out for bears that sometimes wander close to the track. (Laughing, Lehto said the bears weren't a part of the original design.)

And despite the curious wildlife, athletes have had nothing but good things to say about the venue - specifically, the greenery around it.

"It's so beautiful, where they decided to put the venue," said Helen Upperton, an Olympian from Calgary, Alta., "I've seen a few other venues under construction - the (Turin) venue, for example - and I just feel that Vanoc did such an exceptional job with the environmental stature surrounding the venue.

"They destroyed the least amount of trees and natural forest in the area so when the track was completed there was still grass and forest and it didn't even look like a construction site. It was amazing," Upperton said.

While the Whistler Sliding Centre won't be used again until just ahead of the Olympic bobsleigh, luge and skeleton competitions in February, the track opened in 2008 with an international training week.

After four years of work on the project, Kosichek was invited to stop by and meet some of Canada's Olympic hopefuls. He says it wasn't until he spoke with those athletes that the impact of his project finally began to sink in.

"It was only then that I finally realized, you know, what we were building," he said. "(We were) essentially fulfilling Olympic dreams for these athletes. And that- that's when it finally sunk in and it was a very heartwarming feeling to be involved in that.

"At the end of the day, you want to walk away from the project and feel like it stands for something."