NEWS
02/08/2012 09:21 EST | Updated 04/09/2012 05:12 EDT

Lueders mentors former brakeman Kripps in his bid to become World Cup pilot

CALGARY - Justin Kripps has moved from the back of the bobsled to the front.

Less than two years after serving as brakeman for Pierre Lueders at the 2010 Winter Olympics, Kripps is now a pilot on the World Cup circuit.

Learning to drive a bobsled is a steep learning curve. Kripps says he's been able to navigate it because of Lueders, who immediately took a job as driving coach with Bobsled Canada Skeleton after retiring.

Lueders drove Canadian sleds to Olympic gold and silver, a pair of world championships and numerous World Cup medals during his career.

It makes sense that the country's best ever in the sport is tasked with keeping Canada's pump primed with pilots following his retirement.

Lueders planted the driving seed in Kripps even before they finished fifth in four-man bobsled at the Whistler Sliding Centre in 2010.

"In my first year with him, we'd get to the bottom and I'd tell him what I was feeling in the sled and what I thought was going on in the runs," Kripps said Wednesday at Canada Olympic Park.

"He said, 'You know, you've got a pretty good feel for what's going on in the ice. You should think about driving when we're done at the Olympics.' I thought 'Hey, if Pierre thinks I can drive, I should probably give it a shot.'"

Kripps was in driving school within a month of the 2010 Games conclusion. After testing his skills for a winter and a half on the developmental Europa Cup and America's Cup circuits, Kripps made his World Cup driving debut in Whistler last week.

The 25-year-old piloted Canadian sleds finishing 17th in two-man and 12th in four-man.

"He was a little nervous in the two-man. We saw more of the potential he's capable of in the four-man, where he was 12th," Lueders said. "That's an excellent result in your first weekend on the World Cup. You're racing against the top men. Most of those guys have already raced at the Olympics and some have won medals of course."

Kripps will soak up more World Cup experience and test himself against the world's elite again this week in Calgary. Men's and women's skeleton Thursday is followed by men's and women's two-man bobsled Friday. The event concludes Saturday with the men's four-man race.

Kripps, 25, was born in Hawaii, but slides for Canada. His father Rob is from Vancouver. Rob and wife Libby took a short break from working for UNICEF in Cambodia in 1987 so their son could be born on the island state.

They also lived for a year in Australia when Kripps was a youngster, but while he was growing up, the family regularly split their calendar year between their remote home in Hawaii and an organic farm in Summerland, B.C.

Kripps was a sprinter at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., when he was recruited by the Canadian bobsled team in 2006. He was a crewman for Lueders almost immediately.

"Very versatile, but he also had a unique skill in that he was able to give you feedback when he was sitting in the back of the sled," Lueders recalled. "He was always able to be very analytical and in depth in terms of what he was feeling in the back.

"The natural talent he has as an athlete is very important. We're looking for, first and foremost, athletes than can push the sled, which he can.

"In terms of the learning curve, driving is a lot of tracks to learn and switching between the two different disciplines of two-man and four-man. Instead of being always told what to do, now he's in a position of leadership and has to organize his own team, his own sleds and is pretty much the leader of the group."

Kripps has found that the life of a bobsled driver has similarities to the skip of a curling team. The bobsled team is in his name and Kripps gets a disproportionate amount of both credit and blame for a result.

"You're the guy people talk to if things are going well or wrong," he said.

"On the one hand the brakeman are a huge part of the sport. You can't do it without them. Their dedication is crazy, but when you're a pilot, you can get blamed for everything."

Driver duties also take up more of his day. No more "chilling in the hotel room" as he puts it.

"When I was a brakeman I thought I was busy, but I wasn't busy at all," Kripps said. "When you're a driver you have to organize your crew and equipment, do video review after the runs and talk to the coaches. There's a lot more time that goes into it than being a brakeman."

But Kripps is embracing the drama and drudgery of driving because he feels he has more influence in the results at the track and also on his destiny in the sport.

"My dreams and goals as a pilot are a little bit different in that I feel I own those dreams a little more," he explained. "I have a lot more control over what happens and I can't get kicked off my own team.

"When you're a brakeman you can get dropped from somebody's team and moved onto another one. You can go from being a World Cup medallist to sliding on development (teams) in one year.

"When I was a brakeman, the one thing I really didn't like was you'd push super-hard at the start and felt you were contributing and then you jump in the back and hope you're doing well. You couldn't really do anything about it. I like having the control."

Never mind re-learning the world's sliding tracks as a driver, Kripps is also trying to educate himself on sled aerodynamics and set-up.

"I've heard the term "sled-head" before. I don't know enough about it even still, about the super high-tech elements of the runners and everything," he said.

"I'm lucky I have (women's driver) Helen Upperton and Pierre Lueders that I work closely with all the time. They know everything there is to know about material and they'll let me try stuff. I'm learning but I'm not there yet."

Another perk of piloting is Kripps gets to do a lot of what he loves, which is drive the sled fast down the track. Logging a lot of runs is how he'll improve his driving skills.

"It's a lot of fun being a pilot," Kripps said. "Your training is ripping down an ice track at 150 kilometres an hour. It's kind of like a super-intense roller-coaster, go-kart on ice."

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version had Kripps finishing 17th in four-man bobsled and 12th in two-man instead of the other way around.