A season of adversity and bad luck just got a little more frustrating for Canada's men's bobsleigh team.
Pilot Justin Kripps says a set of runners for his two-man sled have gone missing during training for this week's world championships in Germany.
Kripps suspects the runners, which cost about $10,000, were stolen.
"Sometimes when everyone is loading up at the end of the session, runners go home with the wrong people," says Kripps, who is the top Canadian pilot in the two-man World Cup standings, ranking ninth. "They just find their way back to the rightful owner, honest mistake. But this time they don't seem to be finding their way back so we're starting to think it might be theft and police are getting involved now."
Kripps says it's not the set of runners he was going to be racing on this weekend, but they were an important part of his testing plan for the new track in South Korea where next year's Olympic competition will be held.
The case of the missing runners is just the latest in a series of challenges faced by the Canadian men's bobsleigh team this season as the Olympics draw nearer.
Not panic time... yet
With the 2018 Winter Games less than a year away, it isn't quite panic time, but according to team members there is cause for concern.
"We have a lot of work to do if we want to stand on the podium and sing O Canada," says Jesse Lumsden, a brakeman for Kripps in both his two- and four-man sleds.
A season that seemed full of promise with strong early results on North America tracks has turned into a series of unfortunate finishes since the World Cup circuit shifted to Europe.
"The season has had its ups and downs. It hasn't been smooth sailing," says Lumsden.
Lumsden blames the inconsistent results in the second half the season on a number of circumstances, including bad weather and where the Canadian sleds have landed in the draws for starting order.
It's shaken their confidence.
"I think we've actually done a really good job of showing up to the races and in that moment truly believing we have a chance," says Kripps. "Seeing our speeds and times after the races has been very disheartening, though."
Former athlete turned training coach Lyndon Rush knows all too well about the highs and lows of bobsleigh. He says a level of expectation was created by strong results on familiar tracks in Canada and the United States early in the season, only to be followed by disappointment.
"They went through five or six races where everyone got their butts handed to them," says Rush.
Kripps, left, and Lumsden posted fourth- and second-places finishes in early-season races at Whistler and Lake Placid, but their placings have dipped since the World Cup circuit moved to Europe. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)
Depending on who you ask on the bobsleigh team, changing the lineups in the different sleds can lead to either success or disaster.
"The main concern is by tinkering you aren't necessarily putting the best on a sled," says Lumsden. "This is the year for experimentation, though. I was a part of a last-minute change in the last Olympics and I hope our federation learned from the timing of those decisions."
Coach Rush says a great deal of success on the track stems from chemistry, but sometimes a shake-up is necessary, even if the athletes don't see it.
"You become a tight group and you don't ever want to change, but the coaching staff is outside of the bubble," he says. "Ideally you have the same group of guys push together the four years before the Olympics."
Kripps feels continuity will be a deciding factor in Canada's performance.
"Changing the team isn't a good thing," he says. "It can be a necessary thing, but if you have to change the team it means the team isn't working properly for whatever reason, and that's not something we want to be worrying about as we get closer to the Games."
What it takes
Only twice has a Canadian four-man bobsleigh team won an Olympic medal — in 1964 and on home soil during the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. Rush was a part of the latter team, and is now hoping to coach the current athletes onto the podium.
"We have a legitimate shot. We have the horses that can contend for a medal," he says. "I think they have what it takes but they're not where they need to be yet."
Lumsden and Kripps don't disagree with the coach. They know there's a lot of work ahead as the clock ticks down to Pyeongchang, where the track will be unfamiliar to most of the field.
"When we go to South Korea with the rest of the world, whoever figures out the track first will have a huge competitive advantage," says Lumsden. "Our coaching staff and pilots will need to collaborate and work extremely hard to figure out the fastest lines, then develop a program that gives our pilots the best program to execute.
"I can promise one thing and only one thing. When we stand on the start block a year from now, we will have no regrets and we will be as prepared as we can be."
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