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From dreams to destiny

Cochrane Eagle Online
February 10, 2010
By: Jeremy Nolais

Local lugers Tristan Walker and Justin Snith serve as perfect examples of how age is just a number. At 18 years old, the two will compete together in the Vancouver Olympics before thousands of Canadian fans. Regardless of what happens on the worlds biggest athletic stage, Feb. 17 will be a day the two will never forget

Tristan Walker and Justin Snith were fearless daredevils growing up.

There was simply no tree too high, no jump too steep and, needless to say, there were a number of scrapes, bruises and broken bones along the way.

So its no surprise to their parents that the two 18-year-olds will now compete in the Olympics in luge, where athletes fly down an ice track at speeds in excess of 140 kilometres.

(Tristan) enjoyed being off the ground more than on the ground, recalls his father Bruce Walker. He used the garage door as a ride, he would stand on the back of it and someone would push the button.

Sniths father, Steven, has similar memories of his son.

He was a pain in the ass, Steven joked. No, he was a pretty good kid. He was always doing something, playing sports, trying something new.

Local lugers Tristan Walker and Justin Snith placed in the top 20 during their first three events on the senior World Cup. Photo by Mike Ridewood.

Tristan, a native of Bearspaw, took his first run down a luge track when he was nine and Justin, who lives in Calgary but has family ties to Springbank and Cochrane, followed close behind at age 10.

Both were technically too young for such a high-risk sport at the time, but they both quickly fell in love with it and enrolled in introductory camps at Canada Olympic Park.

The basic fundamentals of luge are simple enough, athletes lay on their backs and rocket down a track using their calf muscles and shoulders to steer. The athlete who reaches the bottom of the track in the fastest time is declared the winner; high-level competitions are usually decided by just thousandths of a second.

Coaches were quick to recognize the potential in both Tristan and Justin and the two were selected for Canadas junior luge program as singles sliders.

After some success as individual competitors, the young sliders were paired up in 2008 and instantly became good friends both on and off the track. Their competitive chemistry came almost instantly, Justin recalls.

We are good friends. We do have that bond, but it also has a lot to do with the fact that we think similarly on the sled, Justin said. Well drive similar lines, well try similar things. I think that really helps too.
Tristan Walker showed a love of sledding long before he tried out luge at age 10. Submitted photo.

When competing, Tristan is on top and charged with steering the sled on the right line while Justin is tasked with rolling out of each turn smoothly to maintain the highest speed possible.

With only 20 runs under their belt as a doubles team, Tristan and Justin surprised everyone by placing second at the Canadian Championships in early 2009 in Whistler. It was at this point that the two athletes, who werent even old enough to vote at the time, realized a trip to the 2010 Olympics might be possible.

We were sitting there after in the place we were staying in Whistler going Were second in Canada and theres two doubles teams that go to the Olympics, we have a shot at this, Tristan recalls.
Justin Snith now lives in Cochrane but previously grew up in Springbank where his parents Steve and Andrea fell in love. Submitted photo.

After a strong rookie season on the junior World Cup circuit that saw them win bronze at the World Championships in Nagano, Japan, Canadian coaches decided to test Tristan and Justin on the senior circuit for a few races.

It was determined that the young duo would need three top-20 finishes on the World Cup to qualify for the Vancouver Games.
The original plan was to take us to the first three races on the senior circuit and then send us to junior for the second half of the season, Tristan recalls. No one expected us to qualify.

Making the situation even tougher for the young sliders was the fact that on the senior circuit only the top-10 ranked sleds gain automatic entry into World Cup races. The other competitors, like Tristan and Justin, are forced to partake in qualifying runs at each event through the Nations Cup circuit.

Tristan and Justin returned to familiar ground for their debut on the senior circuit last November, placing second in qualifying and 13th overall in the World Cup at the season-opening event at Canada Olympic Park. They followed that up with a 17th-place showing in Innsbruck-Igls, Austria, and another 13th-place performance in Altenberg, Germany — where they also finished ahead of Canadas top luge doubles team, brothers Chris and Mike Moffat, for the first time.

The duos unlikely quest was completed; they had qualified for the 2010 Games.

Justin, who will be Canadas youngest luge competitor at the Games, describes the time since learning he would be competing on the worlds biggest athletic stage as a huge whirlwind.

Tristan and I are just flying by the seat of our pants, he said. Were just trying to enjoy the ride, hang on and see what happens. Honestly it hasnt fully hit me yet.

The two took some time off from the World Cup circuit in early December to train on the official Olympic track. Tristan said a realistic goal for the Olympics is a top-10 finish, something they have not accomplished to date on the World Cup circuit.

Really my goal is to have two solid, clean runs, Walker said, adding that if the two finished in the top 10 it would be unreal, absolutely unreal.

Wolfgang Staudinger, head coach of the Canadian national luge team, said a top-10 finish would be amazing for his young protégés.

Theyre extremely dedicated, they do everything for the sport, said Staudinger, who himself earned a bronze medal in luge doubles at the 1988 Calgary Games for West Germany. They did an awesome job during the summer getting ready for the season and they do lots of technical work. Having said that, they have a lot to improve on and now that they have raced with the big boys they know what they need to improve on and have a long road ahead of them of course.

One clear example of this dedication came when Tristan was diagnosed with the H1N1 virus last June.

Although he was very ill, the young athlete refused to take any medication for fear of being drug tested.

He always has to be careful, whether its medication or risk of injury, Bruce said.

He joked to me that cutting the lawn was too much of a risk because he might cut his foot or something, Bruce added, laughing. I told him not cutting the lawn would have a higher risk of injury.

If all goes well and the two sliders are able to stay healthy, Staudinger said he is very excited to see what they can accomplish going forward. The veteran coach noted that luge, which made its Olympic debut at the 1964 Games in Innsbruck, Austria, has been dominated by a handful of countries over the years; however he believes Canadas fortunes in the sport are slowly changing now that the country has two training facilities — Calgary and Whistler.

Of the 108 Olympic medals awarded in mens and womens individual luge, as well as doubles, all but four have gone to athletes from Germany, Austria, the Soviet Union or its successor nations and Italy.

Currently, three of the top four positions in the World Cup doubles overall standings are occupied by German pairs. Tristan and Justin sit 21st in the overall rankings, however, they skipped two events to focus on training.

Tristan said luge receives a great deal more exposure in Europe than in Canada and athletes are groomed from a very young age.
Their ski hills actually have toboggan runs on them, so they take toboggans down the hill, he said.

The same way we have ski lessons in school its mandatory for them to try every winter sport.

Bruce added that the most impressive part of his sons accomplishment might be that some of the top competitors on the World Cup circuit have been sliding since before Justin and Tristan were born.

Some of the guys they are competing against are true legends of the sport, said Bruce, who admitted to spending many late nights watching the online feed of his sons World Cup times while he is off competing in Europe. I dont know if its really dawned on (Tristan) what an accomplishment this is.

And although luge has given him more than he could have ever dreamed, Tristan conceded that his sport can be very dangerous at times, something he and Justin found out the hard way earlier this season when they crashed at a World Cup stop in Winterberg, Germany.

People always talk about football as being a game of inches, this is a game of centimetres, Tristan explained.

To avoid injury and perform well at the Games, both Tristan and Justin agreed that consistency is key. Each doubles team will take two runs down the Whistler track Feb. 17 and the sleds will be ranked according to their combined time.

You just have to take it like any other run, Justin said. We have had training runs there, we know we can slide well, we know we can pull a fast start there, which has been a problem for us.

The two Canadian sliders will also have another advantage over their international competitors at the Games, as Bruce estimates 60-70 of Tristan and Justins closest friends and family will be on hand to witness their Olympic debut.

When he goes by well probably only see him for about 14 seconds of the run, Bruce said. But theres so many people going out there. It will be fun.

Family and friends aside, Justin said the community support in general has been overwhelming. One recent example of this came when he and Tristan were met with overwhelming cheers from thousands of fans at the Springbank Olympic torch relay celebration in January.

Its constantly building, Justin said. I have been blown away these past couple of weeks ever since the Olympic announcement with how many well wishes I have gotten. Its been truly surprising.

Steven, who met his wife Andrea while the two were attending Springbank High School, said his sons dedication to his sport of choice has been remarkable and that he deserves all the accolades he will receive in Whistler and beyond.

I am sort of taken aback by how good of shape hes gotten into and how much hes really taken to it — he really enjoys it and the people he is with, Steven said.

And while there will be millions of people watching from all over the world, Tristan said that he intends to be completely focused on the task at hand when he lines up at the top of the track in Whistler.

You dont even think, he said. You have done so many imagery runs of the track you know exactly where you are at all times.
As soon as the visor goes down, you know everything that needs to happen in the next minute.