Winter Sports World: Canadian Olympic champion leads Chinese bobsleigh team towards Beijing Games

Pierre Lueders assumed the role of head coach of the Chinese program in April 2018. The 1998 Olympic two-man bobsleigh champion is guiding China’s top pilots and pushers along an incremental learning curve to February 2022. Lueders on a possible Chinese Olympic medal: “It’s not impossible, that’s for sure”

A Chinese four-man bobsleigh team speed through a curve at a World Cup event in Winterberg, Germany (IBSF)
A Chinese four-man bobsleigh team speed through a curve at a World Cup event in Winterberg, Germany (IBSF)

Pierre Lueders is the most decorated bobsledder in Canadian history, and since his retirement in 2010 he has developed a reputation as one of the sport’s elite coaches, having overseen the Canadian, Russian, Korean, and most recently Chinese programs.

Lueders, a five-time Olympian and Nagano 1998 gold medalist, demonstrated his coaching and team development capabilities with the Republic of Korea men’s bobsleigh team four years ago. Just five months after the Canadian took over the program, he helped lead the country’s four-man squad, piloted by Won Yun-jong, to a silver medal showing in PyeongChang shared with Germany. It was the first Olympic medal won by a bobsleigh team from Asia.

Lueders is trying to rekindle that same magic with the ever-developing Chinese bobsleigh program.

Lueders (left) and teammate Dave McEachern celebrate their gold medal in Nagano 1998
Lueders (left) and teammate Dave McEachern celebrate their gold medal in Nagano 1998

“Even though the program has been around now since early 2016, it doesn’t have the experience that Korea does or Russia, with its long history,” Lueders says. “The other big difference is that the athletes here are a whole lot younger.”

However, Lueders says there is great cause for optimism that the Chinese bobsledders can accelerate the learning process at a rapid pace, and will be well-prepared for the Olympic Games on home ice in Yanqing next month.

“There’s expectations of course, but they don’t really get too caught up in the hype of the Games, they know its important and there are expectations, but they’re pretty good at coming out and just sliding down the hill,” Lueders said about his athletes.

“China has invested a lot of money into the Olympics and they really want to promote sport, especially winter sport. We’re trying to give them (the team) as much information as we can so they can apply it as quickly as they can.”

Chinese four-man teeam of Shi Hao (pusher) Ding Song (pusher) Ye Jielong (pusher) Li Chunjian (pilot). Courtesy: IBSF
Chinese four-man teeam of Shi Hao (pusher) Ding Song (pusher) Ye Jielong (pusher) Li Chunjian (pilot). Courtesy: IBSF

The Chinese athletes are preparing for a World Cup event on the venerable natural track in St. Moritz this week. Lueders says the learning process is constantly evolving, often coming with bumps and bruises in the adrenaline-induced, high-speed sport.

“(Chunjian) Li actually crashed today, made a little mistake coming out of Horseshoe, so that wasn’t what we hoped for, but we want to make sure we have some good results and good momentum coming out of these races,” Lueders said.

Similar to PyeongChang, Lueders and his staff – which now includes German four-time Olympic gold medalist Andre Lange – possesses a substantial advantage of coaching and developing athletes on a home track, resulting in significantly more training time and trips down for the Chinese bobsledders.

“Everybody else will have 40-45 training runs and we’ll have probably 10 to 14 times that – it’s a lot,” Lueders says. “What we see is that they are very comfortable at home.”

Lueders says that he has observed his Chinese athletes thrive when confronted by pressure packed social situations around the new sliding venue in Yanqing.

“When prestigious guests visit the bobsleigh track, what is very interesting is how the athletes respond when certain dignitaries, very powerful and influential people in China show up.

“How they react to that is highly motivating for them when they are put into a pressure situation like that at home and its very different from what I’ve seen in Russia and North America at home Olympics, where maybe athletes feel the pressure more.”

A women's two-man bobsleigh at the start in the Winterberg, Germany World Cup (IBSF)
A women's two-man bobsleigh at the start in the Winterberg, Germany World Cup (IBSF)

Considering that China’s bobsleigh and skeleton program is just approaching five years now, not surprisingly, the country has never won a medal in the sport at the Winter Games.

China’s top two men’s bobsleigh pilots are Chunjian Li and Kaizhi Sun, both 25. Each possesses a few years of international experience competing in select World Cups around Europe and lower level North American Cups in Lake Placid and Whistler, albeit progress has been slowed by the pandemic.

Both Li and Sun finished among the top 15 in the four-man event at this past weekend’s World Cup in Winterberg, Germany and have steadily improved their driving skills under Lueder’s tutelage. Li had a career-best seventh in four-man race at a St. Moritz World Cup in February 2020, while Sun was third in the World Junior Championships in Winterberg that same month.

Chinese female pilot Pilot Ying Qing in Winterberg (IBSF)
Chinese female pilot Pilot Ying Qing in Winterberg (IBSF)

China best threat for its first Olympic medal next month should come from the leading female team of Huai Mingming and Wang Xuan. The duo was surprisingly in second place after the first run in Winterberg, but ultimately missed China’s first World Cup podium, dropping to sixth after their final run. Mingming’s personal best World Cup results came in January, as she finished fourth in both the two-person and monobob events in Sigulda, Latvia.

The homestretch to the Winter Games

Chinese and South Korean teams show their sportsmanship after a World Cup race in Winterberg (IBSF)
Chinese and South Korean teams show their sportsmanship after a World Cup race in Winterberg (IBSF)

Here, in the final lead-up to the Beijing Games, Lueders says the primary focus is on maximizing quota spots and qualifying two sleds in each of the four bobsleigh events – two-man, four-man, women’s two-man and monobob.

Lueders – who also piloted Canada to an Olympic silver medal in Torino 2006 – says the youthful Chinese bobsledders, especially the pilots, are highly coachable athletes and many, although not all, speak sufficient English.

“They listen very well so there is no problem with training ethics and working hard,” he said. “If you tell them to be higher, they’ll be higher, you tell them to be lower and they’ll be lower,” Lueders says, referring how to advice on how to navigate the curves.

Lueders notes that the athletes and his staff are greatly anticipating returning to the home track in Yanqing over the coming weeks for final preparations ahead of the February 4 opening ceremony.

“Everybody is pretty excited to get back on the ice because in October the sliding wasn’t great because the weather was very warm, but they have a good base from previous years,” he said.

“The venue itself is just remarkable how sophisticated and advanced everything is – they’ve taken things to a new level.”

Lueders says that anything is conceivable on the home ice in Yanqing and China’s first-ever Olympic bobsleigh medals could surprise some. It’s hard to discount the Canadian bobsleigh icon given his proven track record, both as a pilot and coach.

“It’s not impossible, that’s for sure – if everything goes as we think it could then anything is possible and we saw that in Korea,” Lueders says. “I tell them that if those guys could do it, there’s no reason why you guys can’t do it either. The Olympics is all about the unexpected.”

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