In his short time with the other side, Pierre Lueders has done so well, his Russian employers have paid him the ultimate compliment. They call him “a good Communist.”
And like any good Communist, Lueders is not about to sully The Party.
Home in Calgary for a brief respite, Canada’s most decorated bobsledder and now the head of the Russian bobsleigh program was asked if it was true the Russian military was behind the development of a sliding technology so advanced, so devastating it could lead to global domination or, at the least, scarf a couple of medals at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
“I can neither confirm nor deny this statement,” Lueders answered.
Is that technology so secretive that not even Lueders has been allowed to see or know of it?
“I can neither confirm nor deny this statement,” he repeated.
Then he laughed. “I’m just joking with you.”
Six months at the Russian front has done nothing to curb Lueders’s sense of humour or enthusiasm for joining a program he felt was on the cusp of something good. When he agreed to oversee both the bobsleigh and skeleton program, the former Olympic two-man champion was intrigued by the quality of athletes he’d be working with and the Russians’ commitment to do what was needed to secure a successful showing in Sochi. So far, it’s all come together rather nicely.
Alexander Zubkov, the 38-year-old two-time Olympic medalist, has opened the World Cup season like a bat out of Moscow, winning three consecutive four-man races. He also earned a silver medal at the recent World Cup stop in Whistler, his first silver in the two-man event in two years. Add the likes of Dmitry Abramovich, Alexander Kasjanov and a collection of promising brakemen and Lueders and his assistant coach, Florian Linder, believe they have the talent to meet their ambitions.
“Having some early success is definitely helping getting them to believe in us,” said Linder, a former Canadian bobsledder and coach who works on the technical aspects of racing. “Gaining the trust of the athletes was the biggest thing I wanted to work on.”
While Lueders and Linder were aware of the athletes they’d be working with, both were unfamiliar with Russian culture or exactly what they were getting themselves into. Their first trip overseas, to Sochi for a contract signing, turned into a surprise grilling. The two Canadians were led into a boardroom filled with Russian ministers of sports and other coaches and bombarded with questions.
“It felt like I’d been dropped behind enemy lines,” Lueders recalled. “Florian and I literally sat back to back and the Russians inundated us with questions to see if we had the ability to withstand their barrage.
They’d say, ‘You’re the head coach, you make the decision.’
“It was interesting because we didn’t have any information to make any decision,” Lueders said.
But Lueders, winner of more than 80 World Cup medals, began making his mark quickly. He asked for a full-time interpreter so he could communicate clearly in Russian because “the pilots are thinking in Russian when they’re driving.” He asked Malcolm Lloyd to head-coach the women’s bobsleigh team and Willi Schneider to oversee the skeleton program. Both Lloyd and Schneider had worked for Canada in the past and are allowing Lueders time to deal with the bureaucratic demands of his job.
While Lueders is reticent to discuss the Russian sports system compared to Canada’s Own The Podium – “It isn’t really fair for me to answer since I don’t know the whole [OTP] program” – he has been informed the Russian way of doing sport is still tied to its past.
“It’s like the old Soviet system, I’m told, the amount of paperwork that has to be done,” Lueders said. “There’s a little more red tape, a little more structure. I have to sign everything and have it stamped. But if I say we need 10 [passenger] vans to be successful, they try and get it. If I make a suggestion, they do it. They’re willing to do it to win. We’re moving at a good clip.”
Asked again about military-designed, state-of-attack sled technology, Lueders said the Russians are like any competing nation and keen to keep their advances a secret. What he can confirm is that his superiors are “working on things that are a little bit out there” and that he is immersed in what’s happening, on and off the track.
“Initially, they didn’t know what they were getting when they hired me,” Lueders said of his Russian bosses. “It takes time. You have to learn about their system because it’s a complicated, big system that’s trying to identify itself. For me, coaching with the Russians, it’s not just an experience. It’s something I wouldn’t change.”
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