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Danger man

Russell's Jon Montgomery hopes skeleton skills good as gold

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VANCOUVER -- This is a story about a daredevil. A world champion, Olympic-calibre daredevil.

And, truthfully, it's a difficult tale to know where to begin.

We could start by explaining that the highest point of the Severn Bridge, just north of Barrie, Ont., stretches about 80 feet into the sky.

And Russell's Jon Montgomery -- Canada's Olympic men's skeleton medal hope -- jumped off said bridge and into the river below a few years back.

Just for the hell of it.

"I had never been so high looking down on something in my life," Montgomery explained. "There was a boat going underneath and they're yelling 'Jump!' and I yell back, 'Are you sure it's safe?' And a guy yells, 'My buddies dive off there. It's no big deal.' I thought, 'Well, your buddies are nuts' but I just said, 'Here I go!' and I went feet first.

"I remember the next day how sore my knee joints were from the impact. I guess when you land at 80 feet going Mach 10... I hit the water so hard it blew the sandals right off my feet."

We could also start this story of a daredevil by ticking off the stunts Jon Montgomery has already done in his lifetime -- skydiving: check; bungee jumping: check. And what might be atop his bucket list after the Olympics?

"I've always said I want to BASE jump off Angel Falls in Venezuela (the world's highest waterfall)," Montgomery said. "I like to do things that are dangerous but controlled. That's why I think jumping off Angel Falls would be good... It's something I wouldn't perish from."

Mind you, to truly understand Montgomery, to truly get what's rattling around inside that head of his and what drives the thrill-seeker in him, you have to go back to the beginning.

Back to his days in Russell.

"His mother would probably say he was difficult to raise because he was so active, that he was a bit stubborn and very tenacious in whatever he was doing," explained Eldon Montgomery, the patriarch of the house.

"He's not really afraid of anything. We have this picture of him when he was one or two years old jumping into a pool with his diapers on, with one of his sisters looking on in horror. He couldn't swim... but the picture shows him in mid-air diving into the pool.

"You know how he learned to ride a bike? His sisters and a bunch of neighbourhood girls took him to the top of a hill and just pushed him down. You tend to learn quickly that way.

"You know," Eldon continued, "he's always liked doing things that bordered on dangerous."

Like leaping off a bridge, parachuting out of a plane, bungee jumping?

"We didn't find out about a lot of these things until after the fact," said Eldon with a chuckle. "That's Jon."

They call it Tower Hill in Russell and it was almost smack-dab right out the Montgomerys' back door. It's here, on the slope at the base of the town's water tower, where Jon Montgomery first took a shine to sliding.

Of course, he didn't just hunker down on the toboggan and hold on. Not surprisingly, he stood on the thing and tried to surf down the hill.

And then came that fateful day in Calgary a few years later when his thrill for sliding turned to an obsession with the skeleton.

Montgomery, working then as an auto auctioneer -- he has a double degree in automotive marketing and international management -- had moved into Calgary's Tuscany neighbourhood and he could see Canada Olympic Park in the distance.

"I could always see the lights lit up at nighttime and this long, lonely, lighted snake of a track worming its way down the side of the mountain and thought, 'That looks kinda cool over there.'

"My parents were visiting, and so we took a tour of COP. We were walking around the track and the first athlete I saw was going down headfirst on his stomach and I thought it was a horrible luge accident.

"I went inside the ice house and said, 'What the hell are these guys doing out there? Is this a sport or are these guys just maniacs?' They told me it was a sport called 'skeleton' and that it had just been added to the Olympic Games. I thought, 'It's on like Donkey Kong.'

"I tell you," Montgomery added, "once I got on the sled and crossed the finish line for the very first time, I was grinning from ear to ear. I could have lost a limb on the way down and not felt the pain because I was so excited."

That rookie run was in 2002, some eight years ago now. And while his fascination for the sport knew no boundaries, Montgomery's aptitude for it did.

"The first two years were really tough. I had my ass handed to me on a regular basis," he said. "I was probably the worst of the newbies at the time."

But in his third year, Montgomery said something just clicked. He made it to the podium for the first time and in 2008 won his first World Cup race. Just over a year ago, he won the very first World Cup race at the new run in Whistler.

An omen? Montgomery's not saying, but...

"It's taken eight years," he said. "It's been a slow and steady progression. But, for whatever reason, that third season was a breakout when something clicked.

"And now I'm in it to win it."

This is the story of a daredevil. A world champion, Olympic-calibre daredevil. And the next chapter will be full speed ahead. Jon Montgomery wouldn't have it any other way.

ed.tait@freepress.mb.ca

 

Skeleton primer

First raced at the 1928 Winter Olympics and again in 1948, both in St. Moritz. Didn't appear again as a sport until 2002 at the Salt Lake City Games.

The name "skeleton" originally came from the metal sled, which resembled a human skeleton. The sleds are now primarily fibreglass.

A skeleton slider usually runs for about the first 30 metres, then dives on the sled for the rest of the 1,500 metres or so, often reaching speeds of 140 km/h. "It's perceived risk," Montgomery said. "The track is designed to keep you in. They've got bumpers on the roof, so that if you mess up so bad that natural gravity wants to eject you from the track, they have boards there to knock you back down. You can get punished, but very rarely do you sustain massive injuries."

Each skeleton event consists of four heats over two days. Montgomery's first two heats go at 8:30 p.m. and 10 p.m. CT on Thursday, Feb. 18, with the final two heats scheduled for 8:20 p.m. and 9:50 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 19.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 11, 2010 C1

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