FOUR GOOD RUNS: Martins Dukurs sets out on his quest to win a third consecutive World Cup Championship.
RIGA - Whilst hurtling down an ice-chute headfirst at speeds great enough for the body to experience 5gs, with your chin mere millimeters from the ice may not be everybody’s cup of tea, for other people it is a way of life.
Next week Latvians Martins Dukurs and his older brother Tomass will travel to Iglis, Austria where the younger of the two will begin his quest to become the FIBT (International Federation of Bobsleigh and Tobogganing) skeleton World Cup champion for a third consecutive year, something that has only been achieved by one other slider in the 25-year history of the World Cup circuit.
The World Cup encompasses eight rounds, the first six of which take place in Europe between now and February before crossing the Atlantic to North America for the final two rounds in Canada. Each leg requires a slider to make two runs on the track, with their total time from both runs added together to decide their final placing.
However, despite the beginning of the season being just days away, both of the brothers are a far way off hitting their peak form. In fact, they do not want to be reaching their optimum performance level until the final rounds of the season, with their focus instead set firmly on strong finishes in the World Championship (an event that requires each slider to make four runs) that takes place in Lake Placid, USA on Feb. 24 and 25, a fortnight after the last round of the World Cup.
“I hope to show my best performances in February because the World Championship is the most important event for us because our budget for the next season is depending on the result at the World Championships,” Martins explained to TBT, adding, “Nobody [sponsors] cares about the World Cup events. You can win all World Cup events, but if you are not good in the World or European Champs, you are not going to get support.”
The ploy of peaking at the right time was one that worked for the 27-year-old last season, when he was crowned World Champion in Konigssee, Germany in late February.
His 2010/2011 World Cup season began quietly, finishing off the podium in the opening event in Whistler, Canada. On the remaining three legs held in North America prior to Christmas, Martins recorded a first, third and second before returning to Europe in the New Year where he blitzed the field in each of the four remaining events, hitting his best form in time for the World Championships. There, he easily saw off his closest rivals, finishing his four runs almost two seconds ahead of second-place getter Alexander Tretiakov of Russia – a massive margin in a sport that more often than not is decided by mere milliseconds (less than a second split the next five sliders home after Martins).
However, despite being current World Champion, European Champion, Olympic silver medalist and World Cup champion, the Riga-native is not short of any motivation, telling TBT, “I have never had problems with motivation. I lost the gold on my second run in the [Vancouver 2010] Olympics, but that is part of the game. You must just carry on, be patient and continue working hard and the results will come.”
Also assisting his motivation is his striving desire to become even quicker than he already is, insuring that he remains seconds ahead of his opponents. “I think there are no limits to our speed. I think I could win every World Cup event and the World Championships, but still I would have targets to become faster. You always need to be moving forward. I cannot sit at the moment at this point and think, ‘I won the world champs, so I am the best.’ Everyone is moving forward so I also try to move forward technically and physically, because if you stay in one place you do not have progress.”
In order to move forward technically, some big developments took place during the summer months in Latvia with the opening of a factory in Liepaja, which will now provide the runners – the pair of tracks that the sled runs on – for the Latvian sliders. With every small piece of equipment being responsible for a difference of mere microseconds, being able to develop new technology in their own backyard is a significant development for the Latvian skeleton community.
“Whenever we build something new, I hope I will get some hundredths of a second out of my equipment,” says Martins, adding, “Our idea is to be more dependent and the main idea is to build a sled with our runners so we can put a ‘Made in Latvia’ stamp on our equipment. In previous times we have bought stuff from different countries, but now we want to make it ourselves.”
Whilst now having the ability to create their own equipment, there are no immediate plans to begin selling their homemade technology to other teams, with Martins claiming that the equipment is being developed purely to assist Latvian sliders. “Maybe after some time we can start selling our stuff, but it is not the main idea and not something I have thought about. The main idea is to be faster at the moment. We will see how it goes.”
Testing the new equipment has come with some hurdles, namely the unseasonably warm Baltic autumn, which has caused some problems for the on-track testing in Sigulda with the artificial ice warming quickly from its optimum temperature, significantly slowing down the performance of the sleds and making it difficult to judge how the equipment will hold up when it comes up against the new sleds being produced by other sliders.
“It is hard to say,” Martins theorizes in relation to how his sled will hold up against that of his competitors. “In Sigulda during training, things are looking optimistic. I hope it will be just as good in the rest of Europe and the USA.”
Whilst equipment is considered to be a big factor in results, the limits of which one is willing to push themselves is also a major factor with top sliders regularly hitting speeds in excess of 130 km/h. Martins has been riding sleds since the age of 12, but even now he retains a certain amount of fear before each run. “Of course we still have fears when we are going down. It is high adrenaline.”
Martins was introduced to the sport at a young age by his father Dainis, who is considered to be something akin to the godfather of skeleton racing in Latvia, having personally introduced the sport to this Baltic State by importing the first sleds from Norway.
Yet despite the intrinsic family connection to the sport and the subsequent success that Martins has achieved, becoming world class sliders was not always something at the forefront of the minds of Martins and his brother.
“In my family the most important thing was education, so I finished high school and then I received a Bachelor of Economics from the University of Latvia. Only then did I become really focused on results and training. Before that, it was more like a hobby.”
It was a path also taken by 30-year-old Tomass, who is an accomplished slider in his own right, consistently finishing in the top ten in World Cup meets, as well as having falling agonizingly short of finishing with the second-placed Martins on the podium at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada, with his last of four runs not quite quick enough to knock Russian Alexander Tretiakov out of the bronze medal position. Tomass also had a strong finish to last season’s World Cup, coming second behind Martins on the final leg in Cesana, Italy.
Given the expertise of his brother, Martins believes there is no reason not to think that Latvia can have two sliders standing on the podium in Lake Placid come next February (Tomass finished in ninth position at the 2010 World Championships).
“I think nothing is unrealistic. It comes down to us being in good shape and having four good runs. If everything will be perfect with the equipment, then why not?