The next couple of months will be of the life-altering variety for Elisabeth Vathje.
In mid-March, she marries the love of her life, Austrian bobsleigh driver Benjamin Maier, in Hawaii.
And just prior to that, this month, she competes in her first ever Winter Olympic Games.
Talk about excitement overload.
“I was saying to my mom I thought I was going to feel different, making it to the Olympic Games,” the 23-year-old from Calgary admitted, “but now it’s something that’s check-marked. It’s the next step.
“For me, the Olympic Games is exciting, but I’m getting married on March 12, and to me that’s more exciting. The Olympic Games is part of my job, part of what I do and it’ll be an amazing experience. But I get to marry my best friend in March.”
Vathje had four podium finishes during this World Cup season – three silvers and a bronze – for a third overall placing and is one of six Canadian athletes making their Olympic debut in skeleton.
“It is crazy to be 23 and going to my first Olympic Games,” she acknowledged. “But I’ve actually been sliding for longer than every other athlete on World Cup on skeleton side, except for one. Because I started so young, I’ve been in the sport longer. My age is less, but I have as much experience if not more. It’s a cool thing that way.”
A little push from Dad
It was her father, Jeff, who put the idea of skeleton into her head. He was on a flight from Whistler to Calgary with the Canadian luge team and struck up a conversation with the athletes. He came back with some information that he thought his daughter would be interested in.
“He got talking to them and at the time I was 14, so too old for luge and too young for bobsleigh,” she said. “So he suggested skeleton. So I did it, loved it and I’ve been doing it ever since.
“I really like how fast the sport is,” Vathje continued. “I used to snowboard and I like going quick, but it wasn’t in a controlled environment. There’s other people around you and what have you. But in skeleton it’s controlled; it’s you and the track, going as fast as you possibly can. I’m an adrenaline junkie. I love driving fast cars so it’s a perfect fit for me.”
Skeleton was added permanently to the slate of sports at the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, at which time a women’s division was also introduced. Perhaps because it’s relatively new in the grand scheme of sport, Vathje hasn’t really had a female compatriot to lean on as she’s been climbing up the ranks, which doesn’t mean she hasn’t had help.
“Mentors are a hard thing in this sport,” she said. “We work closely with the Latvian team so we glean a lot of information from them. Richard Bromley, my sled manufacturer, he and I are very close and I guess he’d be a mentor. He works now with the Korean team, so we don’t have that closeness as we did before. But I’ve really grabbed on the differences in equipment and how I can better my game through equipment.”
A soulmate who’s a fellow slider
She does have someone, however, whom she can talk to about the ups and downs of competition and he will understand completely. That would be Maier, who will be attending his third Games.
“It really is amazing because I can tell him about what’s happening in skeleton and I don’t have to explain to him every detail because he knows it,” Vathje said, smiling a starry-eyed smile. “He’s dealt with similar pressures. He has similar frustrations and so it’s good to be able to lean on each other. Ultimately, I know that whatever I do on the track, it doesn’t matter because he still loves me and vice versa. So it takes away that stress and pressure to be better for someone else to gain approval. It doesn’t matter if we win medals or finish last; we have each other’s support regardless. It takes a huge weight off my shoulders and I couldn’t ask for a better friend.”
Vathje heads into Pyeongchang on a high, having collected her first Crystal Globe after she was ninth in the final World Cup race of the season in Konigssee, Germany.
“It’s been a really interesting season for sure,” she explained. “I changed my approach for the races. I do one run at a time. If I have a great first run it’s like, sweet, that was awesome, and it’s gone. Focus on the next run, hone that in and I found that worked well for me.
“I set three goals every single run, and I tell myself time doesn’t matter. If I achieve my goals, the times don’t matter. Time should show if I’ve been able to achieve what I wanted to. So I’ve changed that approach and it’s really helped.
“Although I’ve had great results this year, I’m always looking to better myself, how can I finish on the podium more often, how can I be working on those tracks that I struggle on that the Germans are so good on … how do I get better. It’s a lot of visualization. Walking the track every single day, which is common for a bobsledder, not common for a skeleton athlete. I kind of took that from my fiancé. It’s time when it’s me and track; it’s quiet, there’s no one around and it’s my time to focus.”
And with that third-place finish on the World Cup circuit comes confidence that she can slide with the best; that she is, quite simply, one of the best.
“The cool thing in the women’s skeleton field is the top 10 to 15 athletes, any of us could be on the podium at any moment,” she pointed out. “It gives me confidence but it also keeps me on my toes. You can’t take anything for granted. Although I’ve had good runs in Korea, I need to get them better so that there’s no questions asked.”
Besides, the only question that means everything is “do you take this man” and for that, Elisabeth Vathje already has the answer.
Rita Mingo is a longtime sportswriter who has covered one Olympics, the CFL, NLL and Triple-A baseball and was the Fred Sgambati Award winner for national university sports coverage in 2016. Follow her on Twitter @RitaMingo.