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Calgary Olympian carves new path away from the icy track

A Calgary journalism student has left the luge world to follow a new path, one with multiple tracks to slide into.

Brooke Apshkrum, 22, is a former Luge Canada athlete. She competed for nine years.

Born in Calgary, Apshkrum moved to Prince Albert, Saskatchewan when she was 4-years-old.

Apshkrum danced at 10-years-old. It’s safe to say she didn’t discover luge while living in Saskatchewan.

She described her time there as “pretty flat.”

“I didn’t know what the sport was, but we had family friends that did it,” said Apshkrum.

When her family moved back to Calgary in 2009, the Pacheco family (Emily Pacheco was a luge athlete and current coach in Calgary) introduced Apshkrum to luge.

“I went down the track and really enjoyed it – a lot more than dance,” she said.

She joined the junior national team when she was 14 years old after going through the development team and training.

“I’ve always liked speed,” said Apshkrum.

“If I’m on a toboggan Hill, then I’m probably the dumbest one that’s doing the stupidest things. As a child, that was my point of thrill, you know, is going fast.”

Luge athletes can reach speeds of 152 km/h. According to Olympic Canada, they are the third-fastest winter athletes.

Luge athletes also receive government carding (funding) once they are part of the national team.

It provided Apshkrum with funds while she was in school and training.

Training for that big slide

Apshkrum trained constantly, with summer and spring being a time for dryland training, and exercises to build a foundation.

“They always say ‘champions are made in the summer,’ right?” Apshkrum said.

When Apshkrum turned 14 and joined the national team, she trained twice a day.

She would train in the morning, go to school at the National Sports School in Winsport, then leave early to train again.

During a season, she would split her semester to make time for training, then go into summer school to make up for any courses missed.

“You don’t really get a summer vacation, or you don’t go away. It’s here in the city. I’m training, and I need something else to do with my time,” Apshkrum said.

The training she went through was sport-specific, with an emphasis on powerlifting. Olympic lifts like cleans, jerks, snatches, were a staple in her routine.

Luge is an explosive sport, and every part of the body has to work in a cohesive manner when launching down the pipe, according to Apshkrum.

Apshkrum’s off-season training started with building muscle (bench press, squats, shoulder press, pull-ups, etc.), and then it would shift towards the power movements that luge demands.

“My last season, I was doing five pull-ups with 20 kilos chained on me.”

Dangers of sliding

Luge isn’t the only sport where athletes slide down a frozen pipe at high speeds. Bobsled is well known, but skeleton and luge are the two where athletes are an inch away from the icy walls.

Skeleton has an athlete go down the pipe head-first, while luge athletes go down feet first.

Since pipes are designed from top to bottom, athletes can finish a race safely knowing they’ll reach the bottom.

“If you put a sack of potatoes on a sled, it would make it to the finish,” Apshkrum said.

There are major differences in the two sports.

“Luge is like F-1 on ice, and skeleton is like rally-car racing.”

A former boyfriend of Apshkrum’s, who is a skeleton athlete, would say that skeleton is the safest sport in the Olympics.

Fear and anxiety have crossed Apshkrum’s mind while waiting her turn to slide.

“I think everybody is scared at some point, you would have to be dull in the brain to not be,” Apshkrum said.

“It is definitely dangerous, but the safety precautions that are around it makes it, probably, the most controlled and dangerous thing you could ever do.”

National Success?

Apshkrum won a gold medal in the 2015-2016 singles event at the Winter Youth Olympics in Norway.

The following year, she was named to the Canadian Olympic team and would compete in Pyeongchang, South Korea for the 2018 Winter Olympics.

“Our team environment that year was sour. It was not good,” Apshkrum said.

“I’m not super vocal about being an Olympian. I’m not proud, but it’s hard for me to speak about myself and be proud of what I’ve done.”

Apshkrum was one of three Canadian athletes in the Women’s luge. She placed 13th.

Despite the accomplishment of making it to the Olympic team, the Olympics were troubling for the young athlete.

“When I was younger, I was a lot more focused and concentrated. And as things got more adult, and I was still young, things got muddied and mixed within that.”

Apshkrum said her environment wasn’t accepting of her on the team. She described the reaction as “you’re lucky to be here.”

“I really see a flaw in that. If you are creating an Olympic team, then everybody on that team, you should want them to be there,” she said.

Being part of the national team offers athletes resources through the Canadian Sport Institute, like sports therapy.

However, Apshkrum wasn’t keen on going that route. She felt she didn’t belong on the Olympic team.

“I felt I wasn’t deserving to be there. And so, I felt pretty shameful for using resources.”

The environment was behind the times in how to work with people and their issues, according to Apshkrum.

“Luge is a rough sport, and there’s these old ways of thinking. You have an issue? Well go have a beer and go talk about it. Or you had a bad day? Well go drink it off,” Apshkrum said.

“It’s a lot of old mentality and a lot of ‘toughen up.’”

Down the pipe

At 17, Apshkrum started to party and drink leading up to the Olympics. The support she needed wasn’t there.

“Instead of being angry and channeling that anger into bettering myself, I was a little spiteful and lost my way,” Apshkrum said.

Challenges with Canadian athletes have been documented with bobsled athletes, skeleton athletes, and gymnastics athletes.

They all point to a potentially toxic environment and culture.

Apshkrum, while grateful for the opportunity, saw the same thing with her own luge experience.

“It’s just a theme through all of sport,” Apshkrum said.

“I talked to my synchro friends, and they’re like, it’s messy. My gymnastics friends, they’re like, it’s messed up.”

Apshkrum says that part of the environment exists because of the demands of sport.

“Somebody will always be doing whatever it takes, and I guess that’s at the heart of it,” Apshkrum said.

“But sometimes, you’re the punching bag, and that’s not improvement. That’s not development. That’s not constructive criticism. It’s not anything much to build off of.”

Silver-lining, broken pieces

Brooke Apshkrum poses inside Stan Grad Centre on SAIT campus in Calgary on Thursday, April 7, 2022. Apshkrum is a current journalism student at SAIT, and is in her first year of study. (Alejandro Melgar FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY)

Apshkrum broke her foot while training in Altenberg, Germany, in January 2019. She was out for the remainder of the season following the Olympics. Her father suffered a stroke within the week of her coming home.

“That was life coming to me and being like, you don’t need to be there right now. You need to be here with your family,” Apshkrum said.

“That gave me purpose beyond sport.”

Apshkrum rehabbed her foot and tended to her father throughout the summer.

Time away gave her confidence and a voice, one that would be used to stand up for herself when she returned to training over the summer.

However, while performing an agility exercise with a fellow teammate in September of the same year, they collided with each other.

Apshkrum broke her nose and suffered a concussion, which delayed her entry into the season.

But before she entered the season to continue her training, she went out sliding by herself.

“That was a really, really good time for me. I felt like I had enjoyed my sport in a long time,” Apshkrum said.

“I loved sliding, and it’s awesome. It’s super enjoyable.”

Apshkrum raced one final time and placed tenth and decided to not compete again.

“Last time, when I was working my way onto a national team, I didn’t know what I was getting into,” Apshkrum said.

“I knew what it was now, and that was a lot harder to work towards again. I chose not to.”

Forlorn Olympic Dreams

Apshkrum looks back at her time in the Olympics with mixed feelings.

She remembers the faces of the people around her at the Olympic village, or from well-wishers online.

“Being at the games, you’re getting messages from all over the place. People you’ve never met, they’re wishing you good luck, and it’s really nice,” Apshkrum said.

But the experience was more of a double-edged sword, according to Apshkrum. A need to perform a certain way and be the Olympian she is supposed to be was constant.

She also couldn’t interact with people as honestly as she would have liked, saying that she couldn’t express a need for support.

“I felt like a fake person,” Apshkrum said.

“You have all these smiling faces around you, but it’s not like they are your friend. It’s not like they’re this person that you can confide in or that there is comfortability to be yourself with.”

“I didn’t feel as Olympic about it.”

Apshkrum did enjoy her time meeting all the different athletes while at the Olympic village, even meeting the likes of Catriona Le May Doan.

“She would help you, [Le May Doan] would give you support. She’s like a rock star,” Apshkrum said.

“She was a badass athlete.”

Training for herself

Apshkrum doesn’t train as often as she once did, and she took a much-needed break from training.

However, she couldn’t keep still for long and found time to exercise again.

“What sport does – exercise does for your body, for your mind, for your soul, it is good for you,” Apshkrum said.

She had a tough time distinguishing between her own training as an athlete and to exercise for herself.

There was something on her mind that occupied her thoughts.

“Luge was the hardest relationship of my life,” Apshkrum said.

“When we – I broke up with luge, I was thinking about luge fairly often.”

Apshkrum was challenged with maintaining peak condition as an athlete, sitting at 15 per cent body fat, and a specific weight for her sport.

“If you’re not getting your period because of your training and your performance, then that’s when issues start to arise.”

Body dysmorphia was prevalent for Apshkrum, with the lowest body fat percentage being 10 per cent.

“I didn’t expect having issues with my weight and how I see myself being in luge. That’s why I joined it,” Apshkrum said.

“When that became a huge part of my performance plan, to drop my weight down to lean up.”

“That really threw me for a loop.”

Since then, Apshkrum has found joy in exercise and eating.

“I noticed my brain could work again,” Apshkrum said.

“I’m not thinking about [my body] as much and I’m able to accept it more and love it.”

The Future of Journalism

Brooke Apshkrum poses inside one of her journalism classrooms in the Senator Burns Building on SAIT campus in Calgary on Thursday, April 7, 2022. ALEJANDRO MELGAR / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY)

With luge behind her, Apshkrum has joined SAIT’s School of Business in the journalism program.

“I really enjoyed writing while in school, and I really, really enjoy photography,” Apshkrum said.

Apshkrum’s time as an athlete saw her travel to many places, meet lots of people, and listen to many stories.

“Journalism has that freedom within it, where you can attach yourself to a story and you can go figure it out,” Apshkrum said.

“You can find news anywhere over anything. It’s very broad and open.”

Luge Canada continues to be a part of Apshkrum’s life. Whether that’s the coaching potential or seeing stories on the news.

Apshkrum said that the truth is important to uncover, no matter the scenario.

“It’s better off for the mental health of athletes that they can complain, or they can have feelings. And there’s a lot of relief that comes with having the truth,” Apshkrum said.

“If somebody, when I was 17 or 18, had asked me the right questions, I probably would have been crying on the spot, just like flooding at the time, but nobody cares about that.”

The experience luge gave Apshkrum was that stories need to be told. The truth isn’t always “sunshine, rainbows, and happiness.”

“Nothing is really fluffy,” Apshkrum said.

“You could do a story on, I don’t know, poodle grooming, and I’m sure you would find something not super fluffy within poodle grooming. There’s always truth that’s there to be told.”

Apshkrum isn’t sure if journalism will be for the long term, but the experiences that brought her to this point are why she is trying it.

“I realized the real world, right? [Luge] was just my introduction into adulthood.”