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Canadian bobsled pilot turns the corner after spectacular crash

Canada 2 pilot Chris Spring was born in Australia, but liked winter sports so much he moved here and became a citizen.

Matthias Schrader/AP

Some day, it will have its rightful place of honour, perhaps over a mantel or in a display case next to the many medals he hopes to win.

For now, it resides somewhere inside of Chris Spring's truck because, even though he doesn't use it any more, he likes to have it around as a reminder of what happened, where he was and where he is headed.

It's a cane, a wooden walking stick. He bought it two years ago, in Germany, after he crashed on the fabled Altenberg bobsleigh track, impaling himself butt-first on a jagged chunk of two-by-four that allowed first responders a glimpse of his lumbar vertebrae.

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Engraved on the stick he used after his eight-day stay at Dresden's University Clinic are the words, "Altenberg Weltcup – Große schmerzen im popo."

"'Great pain in the arse,'" Spring translates. "I like to see the lighter side of things, I guess."

For a man who almost sliced himself to bits, Spring is remarkably together. He is all energy during a morning workout at Canada Olympic Park's Ice House, the indoor track setup where two- and four-man bobsleigh teams can practice their push starts year-round. He is very much in charge – the top-gun pilot of his crew – yet remains likeable and fun-loving. In his owns words, he is "an anomaly" – the Aussie-born track athlete who fell in love with winter sports, so much so he left his home country and recently became a Canadian citizen.

He will be racing under the Maple Leaf next month in Sochi, Russia, where Canada has qualified three sleds for the Winter Olympics.

Lyndon Rush, 2010 Olympic bronze medalist in the four-man event, is the Canada 1 pilot; Spring leads the No. 2 bobsled, with Justin Kripps piloting Canada 3. Although a relative newcomer to the sport, the Spring, 29, has covered a lot of ice in a short amount of time.

His condensed history goes like this: While toiling in Alberta on a work visa – he was an oil-rigger in Fort McMurray – Spring attended the 2007 Canadian bobsleigh championships at COP as a spectator; fascinated by what he saw, he contacted Alberta Bobsleigh and trained as a driver on the COP track; he eventually got to the point where he trained alongside Canada's top sledders and was able to compete at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics for Australia, finishing 22nd in the two-man event. Knowing he needed better equipment and support to challenge the best in the world, Spring questioned Australian Olympic officialswhile they were in Vancouver. He asked if they were able to provide increased funding. They said no. One official told Spring if he was in Spring's position, he'd sign up with the Canadians. So Spring did and became a citizen last Canada Day.

As for the meaty part of his story, it has to do with his crack-up in Altenberg.

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It happened during a training run on a track regaled for its treachery, just five days into 2012. Both Belgium 1 and USA 3 bobsleds had already flipped over on their sides trying to navigate through Altenberg's 17 corners.

For Spring and his three crewmen, all was going well until the sled's exit from corner No. 15. There, at a speed of close to 130 kilometres per hour, Spring couldn't keep his sled from riding high up the track. It crashed into the overhang, took out 10 metres of roof, then slid back down the track to take out another 10 metres of supports. The sled's front axle got caught in steel girders and wood behind the roof and sliced through the bottom of the sled like a giant can opener.

The crew, huddled together in a confined space, had nowhere to go.

"I knew something was up as soon as we'd come to a stop," Spring recalls. "I had a lot of blood on my face. Things weren't quite right, just that feeling in the air was different."

Crewmen Bill Thomas and Graeme Rinholm were hospitalized with broken bones, cracked ribs and bruises. Both men also suffered concussions.

What Spring didn't know was how badly he was hurt. Doctors in Dresden, Germany, had to close the wound created by a chunk of two-by-four skewering Spring's buttocks. The gash was deep, 30 millimetres in length and needed 18 staples to close.

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But the bigger dilemma was the one brewing inside Spring's head: should he continue sledding? Could he trust himself again in a tight corner at high speeds?

He needed to know, which meant getting back in a bobsled and letting his instincts take over.

"What I heard from the coaches and the athletes, and what I saw in his eyes, I felt Chris was going to come back and try it," says Don Wilson, chief executive officer of Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton.

So Spring did. On a chilly mid-day in Calgary, five weeks after the accident, he climbed into a sled at the top of COP. A physiotherapist waited at the finish area in case Spring needed attention. Olympic champion and Canada's greatest pilot, Pierre Lueders, volunteered to go along for the ride. It was a show of faith that invigorated Spring.

"Pierre was adamant he wanted to be the guy that sat behind me when I took my first run back. He wanted to show me that with everything he achieved in his career [1998 Olympic gold, 2006 silver] he had the confidence in my ability as a bobsled driver," Spring says. "We took three runs that day. They were three of the smoothest runs I've had in my life, actually.

"It all just came back, and my hands took over."

Then, came the payoff. At last November's World Cup race at Whistler, B.C., Spring and his newest crew were sitting fourth after their first run. One of those crewman was Ben Coakwell, a former University of Saskatchewan football player. He had heard about the Altenberg crash, "heard it was real nasty." And yes, he once had some doubts.

"You do wonder if those things will make a difference when a pilot gets back in," Coakwell says, "but then I met Chris and I had no worries. He's a goal maker. He doesn't allow himself to waver from them. He calls it being Olympic."

And so on their second run, Spring and crew gave an Olympic effort and finished third, earning a bronze medal. Coakwell called the moment "insane. Winning a medal was great but knowing how long Chris had been working for it, and winning it with him, was even better."

Spring recently learned there was video of his accident and that his coach, Tom De La Hunty, owns a copy of it. Having already processed the accident and recovered from its damage, Spring is not ready to watch a replay – no need to, he explains. With the countdown on for Sochi, there's enough to think about.

What he wants most are some medals to go along with his German walking stick.

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About the Author
Sports writer

Allan Maki is a national news reporter and sports writer based in Calgary. More


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