Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Ice masters

Tracy Seitz at the Whistler Sliding Centre in the summer of 2009.

By Tom Hawthorn
Vancouver 2010 Official Souvenir Program

Tracy Seitz leans against a railing. From his perch midway up Blackcomb Mountain, he overlooks Whistler Village in a stunning valley vista framed by nature with mountains as a backdrop. On a warm June afternoon, he is alone save for a visitor and a young male black bear, who, as our sports truck’s engine roared on the way up, barely glanced from his solitary forage.

The warm air was still. Only the chirping of birds could be heard from this crow’s nest.

How different it all would be in just seven months.

Spectators in their thousands will cheer from bleachers. Television cameras will capture the spectacular view, an image certain to thrill broadcasters and a worldwide audience.

The athletes for whom this vantage point was constructed will be too busy to sightsee. They will be concentrating instead on the icy path they face and the few, fleeting milliseconds that will be the difference between infamy and glory.

As he rested at the start area for the bobsleigh, skeleton, and men’s luge, Seitz traced the winding course in the air with a forefinger. All the crooked twists and turns follow a perilous drop here that will give pause to even the bravest daredevil. Like the black tees for professionals on a golf course, or the launching pad at Cape Canaveral, this is not for the faint hearted.

“The speeds here are like nowhere else,” Seitz said

In a competition preceding the Winter Olympics, a luge athlete set a course record of 153.98 km/h (95.68 m.p.h.). A fellow could get to Vancouver in a hurry at that speed.

The athletes careening at such breakneck speeds do so atop a ribbon of artificial ice no thicker than two fingers pressed together.

The responsibility for maintaining this slippery surface falls to Seitz and his crackerjack crew of scrapers and groomers. He is the ice meister of the Whistler Sliding Centre, a demanding job for which there is no quitting time. The ice always demands attention.

“If you’re a perfectionist,” he says, “if you’re never satisfied, then this is the job for you.”

He has been doing this rare job for so long, has become so familiar with minute differences in ice quality that he judges the quality of the ice not with his eyes, but with his ears.

Seitz, who turns 40 later this year [2010], discovered the sport that would become his life’s calling as a teenager in his Calgary birthplace in 1988. After the Games, a younger brother asked to be taken to the venue. In time, Tyler Seitz became an Olympian and won a bronze at a luge World Cup event on his home track, the first Canadian man to win a medal at the highest level of the sport.

(A third brother, Trevor, became involved in moviemaking. His first movie credit came by working on “Cool Runnings,” the Disney movie about the Jamaican bobsled team, unlikely heroes of the Calgary Olympics.)

Seitz served as track master at Bear Hollow for the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics, a difficult task at high altitude, as it seemed to him “like we’re almost touching the sun, it’s so hot,” he told a reporter at the time.

He belongs to one of the world’s most exclusive fraternities, as only a handful of technicians take on the arduous task of ice preparation. Among his counterparts for the Vancouver Olympics is Kameron Kiland, who will have spent two years preparing the ice at the Pacific Coliseum for figure skating and short-track speed skating. Kiland hails from Kelvington, the Saskatchewan town known as “Canada’s hockey factory.” He learned his trade preparing hockey rinks and curling sheets across the prairies.

Humidity, temperature and the impact of spectators on both can lead to condensation and frost, ruining even the best ice.

“Water is water,” he says, “but there’s a chemistry to water and how the molecules freeze.”

So, who makes the best ice meisters? “Someone who doesn’t like to sleep,” Kiland said without hesitation. “When the athletes have gone home that’s when we’re working on the ice. We do our repairs and maintenance when all else is quiet. My goal is to have the most fair, open competition as possible.”

Back at the sliding centre, Seitz says his goal is the same — to ensure the ice is as good for the last competitor as it was for the first.

“For us, it all depends on what Mother Nature brings to us.” The run is set on Blackcomb’s southeast slope, exposing it to the midday sun. The air is thick with humidity, an unavoidable presence in the midst of a rain forest.

Nor does Seitz want the ice to be too cold, lest it become brittle, breaking up as a competition progresses.

“The toughest part of the job is getting it smooth. The second toughest is keeping it smooth.”

In summer, the snaking, 1,450-metre long run is about as interesting as a dry culvert. In winter, when the ice is right, it will be a spine-tingling ride through intimidating curves nicknamed “Shiver” and “50/50” (because only half the sleds got through it during a World Cup run).

No Zamboni fits on this ice, so a crew scrapes away with handmade tools.

Even the smallest bump in the ice will cause a sled to become airborne, though just for a fraction of a second. It then returns to the ice with a jarring shudder, cracking into the surface. “One bump,” Seitz sighs, “ creates a hundred.”

He likes to stand along the track, cocking an ear for what to him is a happy rumbling sound.

“It’s like an airplane flying over, louder and louder the closer it gets and then fading away.”

The sound he does not like is silence. Silence means a sled is in the air. It means his ice is not performing as well as it should. What he wants to hear is the steady roar of a speeding sled, interrupted only by cheers and cowbells. Always more cowbell.