Matt Blair was a promising track and field athlete in high school. Distance running (his favourite event was the 2,000-metre steeplechase) was his specialty, and a good kick meant he often joined his mates in the four-by-100-metre and four-by-400-metre relays. But at 16 Blair discovered snowboarding, and upon graduation moved to Australia to “chase winter.”
Now at age 30 his love of sports and sense of adventure have surfaced again. This time the activity of choice is the skeleton.
“The rush is amazing,” he says. “The only difference between fear and excitement is your attitude about it. That pretty much sums up how I feel every time I train.”
Skeleton is a winter sliding sport in which a person rides a small sled down a frozen track—face first. Speeds of up to 130 kilometres (80 miles) per hour further satisfy even the most demanding thrill seeker, though every caution is taken to ensure safety is foremost.
Skeleton was also the activity of choice for Jon Montgomery, who following a surprise gold-medal victory in the men’s skeleton event at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver, became a Canadian icon when he passed through a crowd of supporters chugging a pitcher of beer which had been passed to him by a fan.
Blair would love to win Olympic gold one day too, but his immediate goal is simply to make the Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton dryland standards. Testing is Sunday (July 12) at the Richmond Olympic Oval. Clearing that hurdle will allow Blair to shift his focus to the national championships at the end of October. And he hopes to be wearing the maple leaf on one of the race circuits next season.
Julie Johnson, meanwhile, is focused on securing a spot on Canada’s national bobsleigh team. Currently piloting a two-woman sled, she happened to be in Whistler in March, 2014 and decided at the spur of the moment to try out the bobsled through the Whistler Sliding Centre’s public sessions.
“Little did I know, Kallie Humphries (who piloted Canada to gold medals at the 2010 and 2014 Olympic Winter Games with brakeman Heather Moyse) was going to be piloting my sled,” says Johnson. “Riding in the sled with one of the best in the world, coupled with the adrenaline rush of sliding was enough to get me hooked. As soon as I got home I researched the history of the sport, discovered I had the perfect background to succeed in the sport, and immediately decided to start training. I attended a dryland test in the off-season and then attended my first piloting school last winter.”
Johnson has loved every minute of the experience, and the training sessions to follow.
“Because there are so many factors involved in a run down the track—the start, ice temperature, entering or exiting a corner—no two runs can be identical,” she explains. “You are constantly challenged to get the fastest line and the perfect run.”
With an extensive background in sport which includes competitive figure skating, football and track and field (sprints and pole vault with the Riverside Athletics Club in Saskatoon from which she joined University of B.C. Thunderbirds in 2010 and began working on a bachelor of kinesiology degree), Johnson is fully prepared to put in the time needed to succeed. She’s currently scouting for a brakeman to race with. Her ultimate goal is to represent Canada at the Olympic Games.
In a sport full of thrills and spills, and where improvement is frequently measured by small increments, getting an edge and building upon it is an ongoing test of athleticism and mental fortitude. Both Blair and Johnson credit working with trainer Darrin Moreira.
A former provincial team volleyball player and 2013 college champion at Capilano University, Moreira is the official strength coach for the B.C. Bobsleigh and Skeleton Association.
“My main role with the athletes is program design as well as providing instruction,” he said.
“I manage most aspects of their off-ice training like gym workouts, sprint coaching and nutrition. I also help with their push starts on the ice. Basically I am to make them as strong and fast as possible both mentally and physically.”
Pat Brown, development coach for the B.C. Bobsleigh and Skeleton Association and a former slider himself, sees great potential in both Blair and Johnson.
“Julie and Matt have shown they are good athletes, but I’m further impressed with the fact they have made the commitment to slide regularly,” he says. “You can only learn if you’re going down the track as much as possible during the season.”
Brown was drawn to sliding by his science teacher in his hometown of Ballston Spa, N.Y. Tony Hilferty was a slider with USA Bobsled and Skeleton in the late 1970s and 80s and showed the class a video of bobsledding. After class, a 17-year-old Brown asked how he could try, and by the end of the following weekend he was a member of USA Bobsled and Skeleton.
For nine years Brown represented the U.S. and in 1987 won a silver medal in the Pan-American championships, though his dream of Olympic gold at the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary fell just short when he failed to make the American team. But he went to Calgary anyway, hoping to get a job at the Games. The second day there he was asked to help coach the Jamaican team which became the inspiration for the movie Cool Runnings.
Brown soon found himself back on the sled, however, and continued competing until 1992 after which he was offered the opportunity coach in Lake Placid and became head coach of the women’s bobsled team. He then moved to Park City, Utah to head the development program there.
But prior to the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City, Brown accepted an opportunity to coach Greece’s bobsled team and in 2010 help prepare the Korean bobsled team for the Vancouver Olympics. Four years ago, he joined the B.C. Bobsleigh and Skeleton Association and has been enthusiastically promoting his sport ever since.
“After the 2010 Olympic I was asked to help with the development program and to start the public ride program by Tracy Seitz, the track manager at the Whistler Sliding Centre,” Brown says. “Every year keeps getting better and we are starting to get more people involved. The biggest challenge is finding great athletes that can commit to sliding in Whistler. A great athlete that wants to be a brakeman can make the national team their first year. For bobsleigh drivers and skeleton sliders it takes two to for years. But we’ve also started many new programs that are not just for great athletes, but people who feel the need for speed. We have a bobsleigh program for groups to come up to Whistler for a day, and even if they’ve never driven a sled before after a short orientation are driving a bobsleigh down the track from curve seven at about 118 kilometres per hour.”
The B.C. Bobsleigh and Skeleton Association will be holding a talent identification session starting at 10 a.m. Sunday at the Richmond Olympic Oval. It will also be the site of a push camp Aug. 7 to 9. The identification camp is used to find good athletes for the program, and perhaps a future Olympic medallist. The cost is $20 per person. Visit www.slidebc.ca for more information.