Loss of sponsor to pandemic prompts Olympic lugers Walker, Snith to be creative

·4 min read

CALGARY — Olympic silver medallists Tristan Walker and Justin Snith pivoted when they lost a financial sponsor to the economic ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Canada's luge doubles team didn't feel comfortable seeking a new sponsor in difficult financial times for people and businesses.

Walker, of Cochrane, Alta., and Calgary's Snith decided to use the advertising space on both their sled and their bodies to elevate organizations that could benefit from free marketing.

The Canadians, who won Olympic relay silver in 2018 with Sam Edney and Alex Gough, will promote a different charitable organization in each of the four weeks they're competing in Europe in January.

A local travel company hit hard by the pandemic had committed to financially backing the duo through to the 2022 Winter Olympics.

Losing that sponsor put a crimp in the Canadians' plans to invest in sled technology.

"We've been lagging behind a bit on the technology and equipment front," Walker explained.

"We'd be pulling really fast starts and sliding really nice lines down the track, but just losing speed the whole way down.

"We'd committed actually just before losing the sponsor to invest about $15,000 in some new equipment for the season."

While discussing possible solutions, Snith and Walker decided if they couldn't financially help out non-profit organizations they care about, they were in a position to promote them.

"It was more just looking for a silver lining in a year of doom and gloom," Walker said. "We were discussing how we could replace a sponsorship and it came up that now is not the right time to be asking for money.

"We have this platform. We don't have a way of giving back financially, so why not use what we can?

"We have this platform of stickers on our sled, wearing patches on our hats and jackets. We want to give these organizations exposure that our sponsor would get."

Walker and Snith delayed the start of their 2020-21 racing season and used the time to pack in more training on the Whistler, B.C., sliding track.

They depart Thursday for Germany.

"I think it was good for us, especially with the young team that we have, to stay home, get the runs and see how everything pans out over there with the amount of uncertainty surrounding COVID," Snith said.

The Canadians plan to race three World Cups in Germany and Austria before the world championship Jan. 29-31 in Konigssee, Germany.

Via decals on their sled and patches on hats and clothing often captured by television cameras and photographers' lenses, Snith and Walker will feature the Stars air ambulance, the Kvisle Fund for GBM, the Cochrane Humane Society and the Gord Downie and Chanie Wenjack Foundation.

Canadian singer-songwriter Gord Downie's diagnosis and death from glioblastoma was Snith's introduction to the brain cancer.

Close family friends suffering from the same disease brought it closer to home for the 29-year-old.

"Like a lot of Canadians, I was first introduced to it with Gord Downie's diagnosis of GBM," Snith said. "Since then, I've personally known people who have been affected by it."

Walker wants to be a helicopter pilot when his athletic career concludes and says his friend was rescued by the air ambulance.

"It kind of stems from my passion for aviation," Walker said. "Anyone who follows me on Instagram knows how big a fan of dogs I am.

"All my family pets growing up came from the Cochrane Humane Society."

Snith and Walker raced the anchor leg for Canada's relay team in the 2018 Winter Olympics.

They've also earned a world championship silver medal and three bronze in the relay during their career.

The 2021 world luge championship in Konigssee was Canada's event — twice.

Originally scheduled for Calgary, the closure of the 1988 Olympic track forced the world championship's relocation to Whistler, B.C.

Canada's pandemic requirement of a 14-day quarantine for travellers from outside the country prompted the world governing body of the sport to shift the event again out of Canada to Germany.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 21, 2020.

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press