By Martin Cleary
Skeleton racer Mirela Rahneva left the 2002 Winter Olympic Games sliding centre in Park City, Utah, on Thursday as a World Cup champion.
The Ottawa athlete was untouchable as she not only was one of 10 sliders to break the track record, but also was the fastest woman in the first run on the 15-corner track in 49.12 seconds for a lead of 9/100ths of a second.
Rahneva posted the fourth-best time of 49.30 in the second run for a combined time of 1:38.42 to earn the fourth World Cup victory in her sixth season. It also was her 12th career medal on the World Cup circuit.
In an email interview with the Ottawa Sports Pages, Rahneva said it “feels great” to be back atop the World Cup podium for the first time since 2019.
“I had a really great training camp in Whistler earlier this preseason and was hoping for a podium in that home ice season opener,” added Rahneva, who placed seventh in the first World Cup race on Nov. 24. “Unfortunately I wasn’t able to pull it off in Whistler, so I’m quite happy to have brought the speed to Park City and unlock some of my potential on this track.”
Rahneva only had the ninth- and seventh-best start times for her respective first and second runs, which meant she made few mistakes and carried her speed well throughout her icy efforts.
Germany’s Tina Hermann placed second, a mere one-tenth of a second back in 1:38.52, while Great Britain’s Laura Deas recorded the fastest time in the second run to move into third place at 1:38.55.
Rahneva, who posted the fastest first run at last winter’s Beijing Olympics but had a terrible second heat, identified one mistake on a straightaway she wanted to correct for her second run in Utah when she went down last as leader after heat one.
“I told myself to have the same exact run plus that small adjustment coming into curve 10. Didn’t think about the result, only the work that needed to be done and to enjoy the track,” highlighted Rahneva, who returned last season after spinal fusion surgery and COVID wiped out her 2020-2021 campaign.
“(This week), I got back into a routine I liked and I stayed relaxed throughout the training and the race,” added the former Merivale High School and Guelph University rugby player. “I put a more realistic expectation on my goals and it took some of the pressure off. I exceeded my expectations, which was better emotionally than last week where I did not meet them.”
After Rahneva came down the track victorious, she wound up falling off her sled in the finishing chute and spinning around and into the side wall. It wasn’t the worst-looking crash by skeleton standards and received some pokes on social media, but it unfortunately wound up causing a fair bit of pain nonetheless.
“I actually dislocated my shoulder in training by hitting the mats which are supposed to slow you down,” Rahneva recounted. “So when I got up to brake after the finish line, my shoulder came out again when I hit the wall and I went flying off the sled.
“Certainly not my preferred dismount. I’d suggest keeping all hands and limbs inside the sled while it’s still moving!”
A two-time Olympian, the 34-year-old was the first Canadian women’s skeleton racer to win gold on the Park City course in 14 years. Mellisa Hollingsworth was the last Canadian national-team racer to score a World Cup victory, which came during the 2008-09 season.
Rahneva said that she “had a blast” watching teammate Jaclyn Laberge, who was competing in her third career World Cup race, slide this week.
“I think our approach this year is very similar is that we want to take it all in and enjoy the amazing places we get to visit for competition,” Rahneva highlighted.
The last time Rahneva competed on the 2002 Olympic course was during her first World Cup season back in 2017. At the end of that season, she placed third overall on the World Cup circuit and matched that performance in 2019.
“This track is amazing,” Rahneva signalled. “It’s gentle yet fast and just a joy to compete on.”
Following a tumultuous preseason, Rahneva now sits second in the 2022-23 World Cup point standings with 393 behind Olympic champion Hannah Neise of Germany at 401, but one spot ahead of world champion Hermann at 386.
“I’m really excited. I think that it’s going to be a great year,” Rahneva told the Ottawa Sports Pages before her first race. “Medaling at World Championships is goal #1 and I really want to go after a Crystal Globe this year as well.”
—with files from Dan Plouffe
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 50 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.
When the pandemic struck, Martin created the High Achievers “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com and on Twitter @martincleary.
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