June 15th, 2024

Skeleton sledders being sought

By Dale Woodard on July 14, 2021.

Who wouldn’t want to check out a sport you can literally dive head-first into?

That’s what Joe Cecchini and Micaela Widmer were banking on as they brought a makeshift track and a skeleton sled to the University of Lethbridge Stadium on a hot and sunny Sunday afternoon.

The vice president and president, respectively, of the Alberta Skeleton Association were in town for a one-day clinic to introduce younger athletes to the sport with a long-term eye on the 2024 Youth Olympic Games.

“What’s cool about the skeleton is you get to jump in and go headfirst down like you always did and were told not to do on a water slide,” said Cecchini. “This time, we’re saying that is what we want you to do.”

A fun aspect of the sport, for sure, but Sunday’s clinic was about teaching the other facets of the sport as well.

“We’re here with the ASA trying to introduce potential athletes in the Lethbridge area to the sport of skeleton,” said Cecchini, a former soccer player who went on to compete in skeleton at the World Cup for Italy and also raced at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. “So the things we’re going to do today is test them for the 30-metre sprint, the medicine ball and a standing long jump. We’re just looking for speed and power and introducing them to the tests they do at the national level. Then we’ll explain the actual part of pushing. We have our rails attached and wheels on the actual skeleton sled so they can feel what it’s like to push a skeleton. It’s the closest you can get without ice and a track.”

Cecchini’s introduction to skeleton came as his soccer career was winding up at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops in 2006.

Seeing the sport on TV, the native of Trail, B.C. was intrigued.

“I thought it looks like a cool sport,” he said. “The guys are running, bent over, jumping on a sled and ripping down an ice track.”

As far as the technicalities of the sport, Cecchini said running while bent over is the real challenge.

“There is nothing like that in any other sport where you are completely bent over and trying to sprint as fast as you can. We’re bent over and trying to run as fast as we can and extending the sled as far as we can in front before we jump onto it.”

As the noon start time for the camp approached, two interested athletes, Mikka Eaves and Maggie Swain, showed up to test the sport, each taking running starts on the sled under the watchful eyes of Cecchini and Widmer, who is also the Youth Olympic Coach.

The goal is to recruit athletes who will be between the ages of 15 and 18 in 2024 to represent Canada at the Youth Olympics in Gangwon Province, South Korea.

“People aren’t getting on board,” said Cecchini. “Last time around at the (2020) Youth Olympics in Switzerland, we had two athletes who were able to come from Calgary. We were able to develop them in that time. They did pretty good, they were around the top-10.”

The sport is getting younger, said Cecchini.

“The Europeans are starting when they’re seven and are starting to get better and better. The two athletes who went to the Youth Games have really developed in our program and they have a chance to try and make it to the senior team this year at the actual Olympic games. So that’s really exciting for those athletes.”

But Sunday’s clinic was about getting some new faces on board with the program.

“It’s such a cool opportunity if you stick to the sport and if you like it that there is the opportunity to go to those Youth Olympics,” said Cecchini.

“There are opportunities. They can come to Calgary where we have the ice push house at the Winsport. We have a push facility on ice, which is one of the better ones in the world. In November, we can introduce them to the track in Whistler (where) we run the program. We have a novice program.”

Cecchini hosted a clinic in Calgary with one planned in Edmonton.

There are also plans to head to Saskatchewan, while a clinic in Kamloops had to be called off due to the wildfires.

“We’re just trying to introduce it to as many places as we can and really share our passion for the sport,” said Cecchini. “There is no feeling like skeleton. You can’t really describe it when you are actually on the track. It’s an amazing feeling and it’s a lot of adrenaline. It’s speed and power and then you have to figure out how to calm your nerves as you go down the track.”

An Italian citizen, Cecchini said the sport of skeleton has given him so much

He now aims to give back to the next crop of athletes.

“If I can introduce one kid or two kids to the world of skeleton and they get to have half the experience I did, I know they will be able to take that and it’ll be life-changing.

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