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WinSport closes out sliding season amid funding uncertainty

Click to play video 'WinSport sliding season wraps up as future of luge, bobsleigh remains uncertain' WinSport sliding season wraps up as future of luge, bobsleigh remains uncertain
WATCH: The winter sliding season in Calgary culminated with the Youth Canadian Luge Championships at WinSport's famed luge track on Sunday. But with a funding shortfall for a desperately needed renovation, the future of the track remains unclear. Blake Lough reports.

Three-time Olympic luger Bob Gasper was out of place among the 70 or so athletes competing in Sunday’s Youth Canadian Luge Championships.

The 60-year-old athlete, outfitted in a bright neon pink race suit, geared up in the start house alongside the dozens of 10- to 18-year-olds competing in the event.

Gasper made his first Olympic appearance in Calgary at the 1988 Winter Games and has a special connection to the sliding track at Canada Olympic Park: he was one of the very first to use it.

“First time I came to this track, I was in the first test group — a group of individuals, I was on the national team at the time — to test the refrigeration plant at [COP] in February 1986,” he said.
Canadian luge athlete Bob Gasper completes a run on the track at WinSport on Sunday.
Canadian luge athlete Bob Gasper completes a run on the track at WinSport on Sunday. Blake Lough/Global News

On the final scheduled day of sliding for the 2018-19 winter season, he made sure to be the last luger down the track — in case he never gets the chance again.

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“I hope it’s not my last run here but I wanted to be the last run today,” Gasper said.

The luge and bobsleigh track is in need of a $25-million refrigeration upgrade, but according to WinSport, there is an $8-million shortfall in funding.

READ MORE: Calgary luge, bobsleigh upgrade projects shelved due to funding issues — WinSport

According to the organization, the province previously committed $10 million for the upgrades, while the federal government provided $6.8 million.

WinSport decided to stop the renovation project and warned athletes that the track may not be ready to use next season.

Two-time Olympian Kimberley McRae started using the track when she was 11 years old and said the facility was key to her development.

“It’s kind of sad being out here today and not knowing the future of the track,” she said.

McRae was acting as a mentor to the young athletes at Sunday’s youth championships, just as other senior athletes had done when she was training as a child at the sliding track.

“It’s amazing having the senior athletes out there. I remember, as a kid, when they’d come down and watch my race, I’d be so excited and awestruck,” McRae said.

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“I hope that I can kind of give that encouragement and that passion for sport and drive to these guys. Just being out here, I get to interact with them and help them with the little things.”

Sunday marked the last luge run on the track at WinSport in Calgary.
Sunday marked the last luge run on the track at WinSport in Calgary. Blake Lough/Global News

Luge Canada president Stephen Harris isn’t ready to believe the track will be gone for good. If the Calgary track closes, Whistler will have the country’s only sliding centre.

“Obviously, we’ve been in talks with our partners out in Whistler, where our other track is… but at the end of the day, the talks all centre around the fact that Calgary is an integral part of [luge in Canada],” Harris said.
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He added that the facility has been a huge benefit not only to professional athletes but the community as a whole.

“Not all [the kids] will make the Olympic team or the national team, but they’re going to walk away from this sport with some great strengths to take into their life,” he said.

Thirteen-year-old Oli Gionet said he is disappointed with the funding uncertainty.

“It’s a setback, I guess, but I’ll overcome, all of us will. We’ll find a way,” he said.

“Whether it means training in Whistler a lot more or down in the States, I don’t know yet. But it’s disappointing.”

“I hope to one day go to the Olympics,” Gionet added. “Hopefully, the 2026 Winter Olympics, [when] I’ll be 21. I hope to medal.”

READ MORE: ‘It’s such an important pillar of our community’ — Calgary athletes worry about future of WinSport track, Olympic Oval

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In a statement Sunday, WinSport communications director Dale Oviatt said talks between WinSport and the province of Alberta were ongoing.

“We are continuing to work with these partners to find a path forward to restart the project and keep WinSport a part of the Calgary sporting landscape for decades to come,” the statement said.

“We had previously indicated to our sport partners that next year’s sliding season would be affected, even under the previous construction timeline. Ideally, we can secure funding to restart the project and salvage as much of next season as possible.”

Canadian luge athlete Bob Gasper completes a run on the track at WinSport on Sunday.
Canadian luge athlete Bob Gasper completes a run on the track at WinSport on Sunday. Blake Lough/Global News

Gasper, walking away from the track after his final run, said he hopes a solution can be found for the sake of all the kids he saw competing Sunday.

“You look at the children in the start house — they all have dreams. They all have dreams to be better than they are now,” he said.

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“There are potential world champions or, as a minimum, people that live a life of excellence. Closing this track, it would be sad if we lost that in our community.”