WHISTLER, B.C. -- It may seem odd that a guy whose event is all about speed would have a turtle painted on the front of his helmet.
But skeleton racer Jon Montgomery of Russell, Man., isn't about to mess with the wisdom of a shaman.
Last September, some members of the Canadian skeleton team, which begins its quest for Olympic gold tonight at the Whistler Sliding Centre, travelled to Revelstoke, B.C., to visit Sandra Molendyk, who calls herself a "sport shaman." They had their sleds blessed, built a totem pole and painted it with their own hopes and dreams.
Part of the exercise was to discover their spirit or power animal. Montgomery discovered his spirit animal was a turtle.
"He accompanies me on my helmet and sled," Montgomery said of the turtle. He also has the helmet painted in a native theme.
Just before coming to Whistler for the Games, he had Vancouver native artist Phil Gray do the artwork for the helmet. The image of a thunderbird is prominent.
"The thunderbird is the main theme, but it was my idea to put the turtle on the helmet," Montgomery said.
"I thought it was fitting to pay respect to the First Nations people, and apparently their folklore states that the thunderbird lives up behind Blackcomb Mountain. It's a powerful animal and one of their most prized symbols. I thought it would be good to pay respect to that and honour the people here and have my spirit animal guide me down the track."
Mellisa Hollingsworth of Eckville, Alta., the current leader in the women's skeleton World Cup standings, has a horse skull on her helmet, but it has nothing to do with mysticism -- she grew up on a ranch near Eckville. Horses and rodeo are in her blood.
Hollingsworth also visited the shaman after coach Kelly Forbes organized the retreat.
"It was awesome, a great getaway weekend," Hollingsworth said. "A lot of it has to do with getting to know yourself, flushing away all the crap inside of you and having peace. You learn more about your soul and spirit.
"We were in search of our power animals and that was kind of a unique experience for me. We were lying on the ground and she was taking us through this meditation and I had all these ants crawling all over me. I'm trying not to move and I don't want to disturb the rest of my team. Then I got thinking about how strong an ant is, how hard they work and the family unit, and I guess that's what my power animal is."
Ants, horses, turtles, thunderbirds, wolves, shamans, retreats -- they all must be working, because the Canadian sliders have been enjoying a strong World Cup season and are among the favourites at the Games.
Montgomery, who won the gold medal at a World Cup in Whistler last season, and Hollingsworth, bronze medallist at the 2006 Turin Olympics and the top-ranked slider on the women's World Cup circuit, are just glad it's getting close to race day.
"I'm excited to get going," said Hollingsworth, who on Wednesday posted the fastest women's speed (142.5 km/h) and fastest time (53.90 seconds) during training.
Montgomery has also been blistering the track all week. He had the fastest time in each of his two training runs Wednesday, 53.09 in the first and 53.40 in the second.
Martins Dukurs of Latvia, another pre-race favourite, has been impressed by Montgomery's runs.
"He's going down smoking," Dukurs said. "It's a big advantage for him, this home track. It's a tough track and he has really solid runs."
-- Canwest News Service