Hel­mets that speak

From su­per­heroes to touch­ing tributes, Cana­dian skele­ton hel­mets tell a story

Waterloo Region Record - - Sports - JOSHUA CLIPPERTON

PYEONGCHANG — Elis­a­beth Vathje and a cou­ple of other Cana­dian skele­ton rac­ers were brain­storm­ing about po­ten­tial hel­met art­work when a su­per­hu­man con­cept popped into her head.

“‘What do you think about Won­der Woman?’” Vathje re­mem­bers ask­ing. “My one team­mate was like, ’Yeah, be­cause it’s like your in­ner su­per­hero is com­ing out.’ ”

But the fe­male DC Comics char­ac­ter wasn’t enough for the 23-year-old Cal­gary na­tive. She also wanted her sense of hu­mour to shine through.

“The top of the hel­met (looks) com­pletely bro­ken. The idea is be­cause I’ve had a lot of crashes and to kind of make light of that,” said Vathje. “So it’s like smashed glass on the top. On the front and all around it is the Won­der Woman crown.”

Skele­ton, a sport where com­peti­tors race down icy tracks head­first at in­cred­i­ble speeds, was sched­uled to kick off Thurs­day at the Pyeongchang Olympics.

And much like a goalie mask in hockey, the paint on each Cana­dian com­peti­tor’s hel­met re­veals some­thing unique about who they are.

“It cre­ates such a char­ac­ter to the ath­lete, and I think it helps the gen­eral pub­lic iden­tify with peo­ple,” said Chris Le Bi­han, high-per­for­mance di­rec­tor for Canada’s bob­sled and skele­ton teams. “You don’t see a lot of their faces, you don’t see a lot of who this per­son ac­tu­ally is.

“When they have these cool, unique de­signs on their hel­mets, you im­me­di­ately iden­tify who’s go­ing down the track.”

For in­stance, Cana­dian men’s skele­ton racer Dave Greszczyszyn’s pro­tec­tive head­gear fea­tures a griz­zly bear as an homage to his al­pha­bet soup of a last name. “Ever since high school I’ve been called Grizz,” said the 38-year-old from Bramp­ton. “I stuck with it ... eas­ier to say for an­nounc­ers and friends.”

While both Vathje and Greszczyszyn’s de­signs lean on the lighter side, team­mate Mirela Rah­neva de­cided to go in an en­tirely dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion by hon­our­ing her mom, who died in June at age 53 af­ter a long bat­tle with can­cer.

Rah­neva’s hel­met in­cludes a woman in the form of a tree on the back — meant to rep­re­sent her mother — a Bul­gar­ian rose to sym­bol­ize her fam­ily her­itage prior to mov­ing to Ot­tawa in 1997, and a white moose for the life she’s made for her­self in Canada. “The big­gest thing when (my mom) passed away is she lives on through our mem­o­ries of her,” said the 29-year-old. “It’s a re­minder that she’s with me all the time.”

Jane Chan­nell, mean­while, de­cided to pay trib­ute to her boyfriend with his foot­ball num­ber af­ter he died sud­denly in 2009 at just 21.

“On the front I’ve got wings with the No. 7 in there,” said Chan­nell, a na­tive of North Van­cou­ver, B.C. “He was the one that taught me to dream big.”

The 29-year-old’s hel­met also gives a nod to the 2010 Olympics in Van­cou­ver, which helped in­spire the for­mer sprinter to get into skele­ton.

“There’s a rib cage with a glow­ing heart, which hap­pens to be a Maple Leaf,” Chan­nell ex­plained. “So I’ve got Canada run­ning through my veins.”

Based on this year’s World Cup re­sults, Vathje ap­pears to be Canada’s best hope at a medal in Pyeongchang af­ter fin­ish­ing with three sil­vers and a bronze over eight races this sea­son, good for third in the over­all stand­ings. And if she steps onto the Olympic podium at her first Games, it will be af­ter a race where she sported a hel­met that helps ex­press who she is as a per­son. “It’s mainly to have fun,” said Vathje, “and to re­mind my­self that I’m to­bog­gan­ing for a liv­ing.”


Canada's Mirela Rah­neva holds her hel­met hon­our­ing her late mother, Valentina, af­ter be­ing named to the Cana­dian Olympic skele­ton team in Cal­gary in Jan­uary.

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