CALGARY — Elisabeth Vathje may have hit a triple in her first at-bat in skeleton’s big leagues, but the slider is hardly an overnight success.
Skeleton, and its sporting relative bobsled, commonly draw athletes later in their lives from track and field and other explosive sports.
Vathje (pronounced VAT-chee) is unique in that she began sliding head first on a sled at 14.
Now 20, the Calgarian won a silver medal in her World Cup debut last week in Lake Placid, N.Y. Her second stop on the World Cup circuit in on her home track Friday in Calgary.
“You go to your first World Cup, you expect the jitters,” Vathje says.
“To finish second was incredible. I was overwhelmed. The one thing I do say is my goal is top six, but I’m going in with no expectations. If I go in saying ‘I want to win’ your brain is not focused on the correct thing.
“You’re missing the process and focusing on the outcome. It’s important for me to just go out and slide. My body knows what it should do.”
The World Cup in Calgary opens with men’s and women’s skeleton and two-man bobsled today. Olympic gold medallist Kaillie Humphries will pilot her two-woman sled and make her World Cup debut as a four-man pilot Saturday.
Vathje won a silver medal at the world junior skeleton championship Jan. 25 in Winterberg, Germany. She’s been racing the developmental North American Cup and Europa Cup circuits for several years.The week prior to her World Cup debut, she won a Europa Cup in Winterberg, which is the site of the 2015 world championships.
Her ascension comes at a difficult time financially for Canada’s skeleton team. The team has undergone a complete changing of the guard with no returning Olympians this winter.
Own The Podium funding dropped to just $20,000 for 2014-15 from an average of $876,250 in the years between the 2010 and 2014 Winter Olympics.
So Vathje, with help from sponsors and the bank of parents Rita and Jeff, is paying the majority of the freight. She says Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton will cover travel, accommodation and meals for races, but her coaching, equipment and support-team costs are borne by her.
British skeleton sled maker Richard Bromley, the brother of racer Kristan Bromley, and former Canadian team slider Charles Wlodarczak are coaching Vathje.
Bromley produced her new $10,000 sled that took her to another level in racing the moment she dove onto it in October.
“It was love at first slide,” Vathje said. “I went on that sled and it was a second faster than my old sled. It’s incredible to have it tuned so perfectly to me that I can just let the sled do the work.”
An employee benefits company and a trucking company sponsor her. Her father works for an energy company. Vathje says her mother bakes and sells cookies to defray the cost of her racing.
“I will be going to different competitions on the back of cookies,” Vathje says. “It’s really sponsors that are coming behind me. My mom and dad cover the rest basically. Working in the summer is hard because it’s not conducive to good training.
“We call it Team Vathje. It takes a village, really. It is expensive.”
She took up the sport because her father sat near the luge team on a plane from Vancouver when she was 13.
“They got talking and at the time I was too old for luge and too young for bobsled, but perfect for skeleton,” she explained. “We got involved. I did a talent I.D. camp.”
“It was kind of crazy, but my parents signed off on it.”
The World Cup circuit moves to Europe in January. Vathje knows the North American tracks inside and out having slid on them often in the minors. But she’s confident in her abilities in Germany, Austria and France because she’s raced Europa Cups on those tracks too.
OTP allocates Sport Canada funding based on whether a sport federation has athletes with medal potential. Vathje knows winning World Cup medals could help restore funding to the team.
“That’s not really something I focus on, but I want to do my best to help better my team,” she said. “We’re in an individual sport, but we’re still a team. I want to see my teammates do well. The last thing I want to see if because we have a lack of funding that we do poorly.
“If I do well, fantastic. It helps the team. It betters the team and better us all.”