After three long years away from competition, Thunderbird Corner is roaring again and a pair of young Sea to Sky athletes find themselves right in the mix.
Whistler’s own Tirza Lara and Payton Spence of Squamish are members of Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton’s NextGen team. Both saw action Nov. 11 and 12 in the IBSF North American Cup at the Whistler Sliding Centre. Lara, 21, grabbed a pair of top-10 finishes, while Spence, 15, placed 11th on consecutive days in her very first international event.
Two-time Canadian Olympian Mirela Rahneva envisions a bright future for them both.
“[I’ve seen] a lot of talent, a lot of potential and a lot of growth over the past couple of years,” Rahneva said of her young compatriots. “Tirza and Payton have moved up quickly. It’s exciting to see. It goes to show that when you have the facility, it will attract local talent, and I would hope that more comes out of Whistler.”
The Whistler Sliding Centre boasts the fastest track of its kind on Earth, with skeleton sleds reaching up to 146 km/h down 1,700 metres of curated ice. It’s all over in less than a minute. Young athletes must prove themselves ready for that kind of speed: they begin from the junior start point down at Corner 6 and progress to Corner 3 (called the Wedge) to gain experience before launching themselves from the main starting zone atop the track.
“Making your way up to the start is really a big milestone for any slider,” Rahneva explained.
Down at the bottom, after a technical stretch known as the Gold Rush Trail, waits Thunderbird Corner. Many tracks have their own distinctive features, and the 16th corner in Whistler (named in honour of local First Nations culture) is notorious for its speed and technical challenges. The fact that Lara and Spence are already racing the full course on an international stage is no mean feat, with plenty more milestones on the way for both.
Float like a butterfly, race like an Olympian
Skeleton was not Lara’s first love. The former Calgarian began dancing at age four, and by 15 she was a dedicated ballerina. After performing with the Mexican National Ballet, Lara aspired to join a dance company in Vancouver, but knee injuries forced her to find a new path. Her younger brother ended up helping.
Noah Lara is a former youth speed skater, and through watching his races, Tirza became interested in the passion, joy and commitment that comes with participating in Olympic sports. Watching skeleton sleds fly by at Canada Olympic Park in Calgary jogged her memory, and for her 16th birthday, Lara asked her mom to treat her to a public skeleton experience at the Whistler Sliding Centre (something that anyone in good health can sign up for).
Her coach that day was 2014 Canadian Olympic alternate Cassie Hawrysh. By her second run, Lara was in love.
“The world around me kind of, like, shut off,” she recalled. “And it was just me, the ice, the speed and nothing else. It just got faster and faster and faster, it built up to this huge crescendo through Corner 16, and then as soon as I came out, that was when that adrenaline hit. And I was addicted to that feeling.”
Lara was all in. In June 2018, after finishing her Grade 11 classes, she moved to Whistler as a 16-year-old with a summer job at the Sliding Centre. The ordeal of balancing work with her final year of high school and training in her new sport—not to mention navigating local public transit—taught Lara the importance of reaching out to people and finding connections wherever she can.
So how did a ballet background translate to skeleton? Better than you might think. Dancers need excellent body awareness, a trait that also serves well when driving a high-velocity sled down a frozen track using subtle movements. Being a ballerina also helped Lara find enjoyment in many hours of practice and physical conditioning as an athlete.
And just like ballet, minor errors can be the difference between success and failure in skeleton. Lara finds that balance in her life is vital to her well-being in a sport where one one-hundredth of a second can keep a competitor from the podium. She remains a student, taking a bachelor’s degree in human science through Athabasca University. Her mom and brother now live in Sun Peaks, making it a little easier for her to stay in touch with them.
“I was having this conversation with one of our national team girls the other day, to try and make [my goals] more like qualitative versus quantitative, and focused on clock, because to an extent, there is a bit of luck involved,” Lara said. “Focusing instead on the things that I can control has been very useful.”
‘Not as scary as you think’
Spence, as previously mentioned, is 15 years old. Last week, she set a personal best top speed of 133 km/h on a skeleton sled at the North American Cup. The first time I went that fast, I was well into my 20s—and driving a car.
The Squamish native first found sliding at age 13, when she was curiously informed that she was “too old” to pick up luge. Skeleton was next, and its adrenaline rush hooked her much as it did Lara. Due to her youth, Spence began training out of the forgiving “Maple Leaf” start point just before Corner 11 (the same place average citizens launch their public skeleton runs from), working her way up to the top.
These days, Spence is competing against Canadian national team seniors like Jaclyn LaBerge and Olympians from abroad like Anna Fernstadt of the Czech Republic, proving that the spotlight is not too bright for her.
“Oh, it was so much fun,” she said about her first North American Cup experience. “I wish I could do it again sooner.”
Sliding is a family affair in the Spence household. Payton’s older brother, Connor, is a bobsledder, while her younger sister Allie got into luge. The kids often train together and volunteer at the track along with their mom, Stacey, helping young lugers practice their starts and race officials move around equipment for older athletes.
Spence credits the world of sliding with unifying her and her siblings in pursuit of a common goal.
“Knowing that I can go places in skeleton makes me really want to push myself to go those places,” she said. “And then I know that luge is pushing my sister to go places as well, and bobsled [for my brother].”
Most parents do not have to worry about their children screaming down icy racetracks at breakneck speeds, but that is Stacey Spence’s lot in life. Needless to say, she is proud of her kids and how they celebrate each other in sport and life. Although the Spence matriarch is often far more nervous about her daughter’s races than her daughter is, she credits Whistler’s employees, track workers and coaches for making it inviting to spend long hours at the Sliding Centre.
“Payton’s coaches, Joe Cecchini and Micaela Widmer, have been incredibly supportive and inclusive with her training,” Stacey said. “They treat her like an athlete despite there being an age difference. It makes it easier as a parent to watch [skeleton].
“I get a lot of people who say: oh my God, how do you handle this? And I’m like, you have to see how everybody works around her. I feel completely safe.”
Spence looks forward to getting more races under her belt this year, gaining in both velocity and experience. She hopes to one day forerun (or test the track) at a World Cup event for her mentors on the national team, Rahneva and Jane Channell. She also wants more people to know that her sport is much safer than it may appear.
“Skeleton is actually the safest of the three sliding sports,” Spence said. “It’s actually not as scary as you think.”
Find more info, including full race results, at ibsf.org.