Fitness: What it takes to get to the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics
For the next two weeks, you’ll be enjoying a ringside seat to the greatest athletes in the world doing what they do best. And despite the fact that they make it look easy, becoming an Olympian is anything but. Most careers are built on blood, sweat and tears, with plenty of lows sprinkled between the highs of podium-worthy finishes.
So what does it take to represent Canada in Pyeongchang? Here’s some insight on the path to gold for a few of the disciplines in which our athletes are expected to shine.
Biathletes need a big, strong aerobic system combined with a large dose of speed and endurance, says Roddy Ward, high performance director and national team coach for Biathlon Canada. Most athletes arrive on the national scene through a talent identification process set up for biathlon clubs across Canada.
It’s important for youth to experiment with a variety of activities before choosing biathlon as their primary sport, Ward said. Most athletes start around eight or nine years of age, specialize at 15 and reach their peak between 28-32.
The athletes spend 10-20 hours a week on the snow along with a few hours of shooting practice. It’s a six-times-a-week training schedule, with plenty of two-a-days. In the off-season, you’ll find biathletes running, cycling and roller skiing until they can get back on the snow.
And despite the focus on the physical demands of biathlon, there’s a significant mental component to the sport — especially when it comes to the type of precision shooting needed to excel.
“Biathletes need to be really mindful and in the moment,” Ward said. “They need to use all their brain power.”
While there’s no ideal body type for figure skaters, ice dancers like Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir tend to be closer in height, whereas pairs like Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford are more mismatched, said Mike Slipchuk, Skate Canada’s high performance director.
Most skaters get into the sport early, with up-and-comers generally identified at 12-13 years of age, though skaters’ careers can skyrocket and plateau several times before hitting their peak.
Strength is needed to power through overhead lifts and jumps, but ice dance has become a lot more acrobatic in recent years, which demands its own level of strength and agility. Many skaters go into singles first and then move to pairs or dance, as it takes a while to build the strength necessary to perform lifts.
“Lifts span 7-12 seconds and they do a lot of stuff in that time frame,” Slipchuk noted.
It takes about 10 years at the elite level to develop into a world-class athlete, with most ice dancers peaking in their 20s. Canada’s team is one of the most experienced, with Virtue and Patrick Chan in their late 20s and Moir in his 30s. Their careers have been extended thanks to the investment Skate Canada has made in the sport science side of the sport, with exercise physiologists, physiotherapists and massage therapists all working to keep the athletes healthy.
Their daily routine consists of two to three hours on the ice and an almost equal amount of time off-ice — building strength, flexibility and agility — at the gym, yoga or Pilates studio. With the Olympics followed by the World Championships a month later, it’s a gruelling schedule. There’s very little off-season, with most athletes skating 48-50 weeks of the year.
Snowboarders are known for their fearlessness and body awareness, especially while in the air, said Adam Higgins, high performance pathway manager for Canada Snowboard. Having “good pop,” the ability to jump and to land a jump is also crucial.
Freestyle athletes who perform tricks in the air tend to be smaller and more compact than snowboarders who compete in speed events like snowboard cross and alpine.
“Smaller guys spin faster and taller guys have more power,” Higgins said.
Snowboarders get into the sport early, spending most of their childhood enthusiastically shredding the local slopes; elite athletes start being groomed at about age 14. Mark McMorris has been among the best in the world for six years and he’s only 22.
Most of the national team live in Whistler and are on the snow every day. They hit the gym and do all the right things to help their body recover from the grind, but the off-season is short and snowboarders live for the snow.
Most bobsledders get into the sport in their 20s after a career in speed and power sports like track, football and rugby. Universities are great recruiting grounds. So are the armed forces.
“The sport demands physically mature athletes,” said Morgan Alexander, strength and conditioning coach for Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton.
It takes brute strength to push the sled. But there’s a maximum weight in the sled, so not all athletes are big. Plus, the sport demands agility, balance and coordination — jumping into a sled travelling at full speed isn’t easy. And drivers need good hand/eye coordination.
The athletes are in the weight room four times a week working on building the right balance of speed and power. Track workouts happen two to three times a week. They also spend time improving their flexibility and mobility, so it’s not unusual to find bobsled athletes in a yoga studio.
Finally, the push is a collective effort, which means bobsled athletes need good teaming skills.
This is not a sport that lends itself to tall athletes. Freestyle skiers pack a lot of strength into a small compact body. They’re also adrenalin junkies who do things most of us wouldn’t think of trying.
“They fear consequences much less than the rest of us,” said Adrian King, director of sports science and medical services at Freestyle Canada.
Like snowboarders, most freestyle skiers grow up on the slopes and practise their tricks in snow parks throughout their teen years, but a gymnastics and trampoline background is common — especially in aerials.
Mogul skiers hit their peak at 23-26 years of age, but those on the aerial team are typically a bit older due to its technical nature. During the competitive season, athletes spend most of the time on the snow. In the off-season, it’s a three days on, one day off schedule, with eight to 10 hours alternating between the water ramp, gym, treatment room and snow — if there is any.