When Pierre Lueders parked his bobsled in 2010, and signed up as a coach for the Canadian team, he had a rude conversation with a senior bobsleigh official.
“He told me that successful athletes like myself generally don’t make good coaches,” Lueders said. “I was basically told to expect to fail. I didn’t take it very well, and I’ve always kept that in the back of my head and used it to motivate me.”
Last Monday, at the 2104 Sochi Winter Olympics sliding centre, Lueders proved his critic (who he won’t identify) comprehensively wrong. The team he coaches won gold in the two-man bobsleigh event.
But the winners were not Canadian; they were Russia’s Alexander Zubkov and brakeman Alexey Voevoda. The second Russian sled, with Alexander Kasjanov driving and Maxim Belugin pushing, narrowly missed the bronze. The fastest Canadian sled finished sixth.
The gold for Russia was a huge vote of confidence for its sliding team, which has had, at best, a mediocre run in the Winter Olympics, with a grand total of three medals – none of them gold – in the two-man and four-man sleds since 1924. Lueders had taken a clapped-out team and turned it into a winner.
His team could win gold again Sunday, the last day of the Sochi Games, in the prestigious four-man event. (The Russian women are not in winning form yet.)
Lueders, 43, lives in Calgary and took the coaching job almost two years ago, as Russia was throwing fortunes into the effort to come out on top in Sochi (just as Canada had for Vancouver in 2010). He won’t say how much he was paid, or the bonus (if any) he earned for the gold at Sochi, but you can assume it’s a sweet figure.
“They want to be a power in sport, it’s part of their tradition,” Lueders said by the side of the bobsleigh run – the world’s longest – a day after the two-man victory. “They see that it brings the country together.”
Lueders is Canada’s most-successful slider. In addition to a gold medal in the two-man sled at Nagano in 1988 (with Dave MacEachern pushing) and a silver at Turin in 2006 (with Lascelles Brown), he has won dozens of World Cups.
He is intense and muscular, with a strong jaw, and still looks like he could ride a sled like a torpedo.
He still does – a rarity for a bobsleigh coach. He has done about 50 runs at the Sochi track, not just to get a feel for the 1.5-kilometre course and its 17 curves, but as a rather sly coaching technique.
“Whenever I slid, the young guys on the team would say, ‘We’ve got to beat this guy,’” he said. “They never had a coach who went out sliding with them. At first, they were shocked – they were half a second behind me. That motivated the team.”
Lueders would not have taken the Russian coaching job, which included the skeleton team, if he did not think it had potential.
Indeed, most of the parts to cobble together a winning campaign were already in place. There was ample, if undisciplined talent, an Austrian builder of beautiful sleds, lots of equipment, a gleaming new track at Sochi and, of course, funds galore.
He was given a full-time interpreter and brought in fellow former Canadian slider Florian Linder as his deputy; Linder’s main job is analyzing and improving the start times (races are typically won or lost in the first 50 metres of pushing).
The duo set to work.
The women’s program was pretty much a wreck. The men’s team was in better shape, but lacked a performance standard and had too many pilots and pushers that would never make the Olympic grade, even if a few were medal candidates. The coaching was mediocre.
“They had all the pieces, but like a jigsaw puzzle, everything was everywhere,” Lueders said. “But we saw some experienced pilots, the same with pushers. The talent was there.”
One big problem was regional jingoism. The Russian bobsleigh federation was run like a bureaucracy, with every regional or local coach demanding his hometown athlete make the cut.
“Loyalties were to the regions, not to Russia itself,” he said. “So you would have crews put together based on regions, not the four best guys.”
So the cull began; out went the no-hopers, including a few coaches, and anyone with a bad attitude. A dozen or more were shown the door.
Lueders and his coaches figured out by last March, after an intensive training camp that forced teams to do up to nine runs a day, that the team had enormous potential. The home-track advantage helped. (It also helped the drivers did not fear the Sochi track, which is more gentle than the one used at the 2010 Vancouver Games.)
It all came together this week.
To be sure, the Canadians weren’t thrilled to see their old coach and crew member launching a foreign team to the top of the podium. “I don’t want to say anything bad,” said Lyndon Rush, pilot of the ninth-place two-man sled. “He’s coaching the Russians, so I’m not really cheering for him.”
But Lueders said he and Linder are proud of their accomplishment and don’t feel bad for the Canadians.
“It was just an overwhelming sense of pride for myself and Florian,” Lueders said.
The Russian sports ministry would no doubt like him to stay, and Lueders said he is happy to oblige, though no formal talks on extending his contact have been held. “If it’s five more days or four more years, it’s fine for me,” he said.
Lueders insists he was not a “gun for hire” for the 2014 Olympics only, noting he still has a lot of work to do as the older athletes, such as Zubkov, 39, retire and new ones fill the pipeline.
“My job is to be loyal to Russia, and loyal to this program,” he said. “It’s been such as rewarding experience working with the Russians.”