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Lugers could slide into big bucks

The Globe and Mail
By Jeff Blair,
The Globe and Mail

WHISTLER, B.C. - Bears you expect. Lynx, too. But bulls? When did they let the bulls loose?

"There's wild life around here - it's Whistler, it's pretty cool," Canadian luge veteran Jeff Christie said Tuesday, relaying a story about seeing "a big black thing going under the railing" near Turn 1 at the Whistler Sliding Centre, "and started to look up the track."

Christie looked at the starter and said he was not going down the track because in his red suit he'd "look like a giant salmon."

Canada's lugers are pretty much where their coach, Wolfgang Staudinger, wanted them to be when the World Cup season started: Positioned to the point where, if they have the four runs of their life and the powerhouse Germans slip up, they can sneak in a medal. Just like anybody else. Nothing grandiose. No outrageous promises.

But there may not be a more buoyant group of Canadian athletes at the Vancouver Winter Games. Not only did their title sponsor, Fast Track Capital, step up last spring and sign a contract through the Sochi Olympics in 2014, the financial investment company also told them Tuesday morning it was offering $1-million for a gold medal here, to be split between the athletes and the Canadian Luge Association.

The Alberta-based Fast Track has also offered $50,000 for a silver or bronze, and $5,000 for the top Canadian finisher in men's, women's and doubles.

There should be better things to do than talk about money heading into the 2010 Games, but there you go: The fear of every athlete, coach and administrator, regardless of their sport, is once the glow wears off from Vancouver, the whole country will go back to worrying about the identity of the fourth-line right winger on the local NHL teams.

"The Fast Track agreement we signed last spring put us in a position where we can budget now, because everything else is up in the air," CLA executive director Tim Farstad said. "The fact they came to us and started doing bonuses for the athletes and the organization? Whether we get this or not, it shows how they're committed to team and enjoy being involved to us."

Canada's lugers have also profited immensely from the Own the Podium program. Staudinger was hired away from Germany, the luge sled shop in Calgary is world-class and the team has a full-time athletic trainer, Louise Vien - a necessity in a sport riddled by back injuries.

"My first time was in 2000, and now we're blessed with having sports psychology and a world-class physio - and whatever - and that's because of the funding," said luger Regan Lauscher, who will turn 30 on Feb. 21 and is at her second Olympics.

"Back then, we were borrowing tape to tape our own ankles and didn't know what we were doing," the native of Red Deer, Alta., said.

"Now, if we have a headache or hangnail, it's taken care of and it allows us to focus on what we need to do. When you're splitting hairs at the finish line between a winner and a loser, it's really. ... It just says a lot to the progression of the program that we have the extra support to go out and do our jobs and not worry about everything else."

Lauscher called the Fast Track bonuses "the carrot dangling at the end of the stick. ... A million dollars this ... prize money that ... charity this - you have to walk before you run, and that's what we're doing right now."

Christie - a native of Vancouver who moved to calm any concerns other country's competitors might have about bear attacks by helpfully noting "they should be sleeping now" - is at his second Olympics.

"The thing with OTP," he explained, "is that the funding came five years out from the Games. A lot of times, it comes just one or two years out and you can't get results like that.

"We had hockey jerseys given to us this year with the words thousands matter,' inside. Without that ... you can't worry about thousands when you have to worry about Band-Aids."