Calgary’s Pathway to the Podium Series highlights 10 local Canadian athletes on their backstories and hopes in Pyeongchang. Elisabeth Vathje is one of them.
Some athletes are stoic. Others are unconstrained. Elisabeth Vathje is the latter and by a long shot. After a successful run, it’s not uncommon for her to leap into her mother Rita’s arms, who has travelled to her World Cup events this winter. The affection is so contagious that Rita has turned into a circuit parent for other athletes, providing a comforting hug whenever necessary.
It’s easy to understand Vathje’s attitude. At just 23, she’s currently ranked third in the world going into her first Winter Games in Pyeongchang. She recently won her first Crystal Globe for finishing third overall in the World Cup standings, her last podium coming in January in St. Moritz. And after the Games, she’ll trade in Pyeongchang for Hawaii, where she’ll marry the love of her life, fellow Olympian and Austrian bobsleigh pilot, Benjamin Maier. She has plenty of reasons to smile.
But it was nothing but sadness a little over a year ago.
“I was lost,” she said. “I didn’t want to compete anymore.”
“All I wanted to do was be back with my family.”
The day after Vathje just missed the podium in St. Moritz, her family was rocked when her cousin Justin tragically took his own life at the age of 27. The gold she had won a week prior in Winterberg was forgotten as she was on the phone with family back home. Her mother was there for her, while her grandparents were there for everyone else.
“That’s when I realized how important family was to me,” she said. “When I meet everyone, it’s important for me to have them be able to smile, make them feel special and worth while.”
Along with the bodysuit and the helmet, Vathje says she’s covered in prayer from everyone back in Calgary, as well as her traveling mother and competing fiancé. She questions if there’s another athlete in the world with more support than her. And knowing Justin loved what she did and was proud of her accomplishments, gives her an extra motivation.
“How I honour his life the best way I know possible is to slide,” she said. “And to slide in remembrance of him.”
As for sliding itself, Vathje was rather late to the party. She was playing all sorts of sports in her early teens when her father Jeff happened to be on a flight with the Canadian luge team. The well-documented encounter included him asking the team how his 14-year-old daughter could get involved and because of her age, they suggested skeleton.
The rest is history. She began competing in 2008 and after a silver medal in the 2014 Junior World Championships, burst onto the scene in her first year on the World Cup circuit. She had four podium finishes in that rookie year, capped off with a bronze medal at the world championships. After a disappointing sophomore campaign, she got back to the podium in 2017, making multiple podiums again and even fought mono and a liver infection at the Pyeongchang 2018 test event. This season saw four more podium finishes and that first Crystal Globe.
She can’t help but think what life would be like had her father not been on that plane.
“I do a lot, especially with my friends racking up their university degrees,” she said. “I think I would’ve ended in college and I don’t think I would be pursuing an Olympic dream.”
That dream started by watching the 2002 Games, further inspired by Canmore’s Chandra Crawford belting out ‘O Canada’ four years later in Turin in cross-country skiing. Now it’s Vathje with the chance of inspiring, considered one of the rising stars in Canadian winter sports. But despite the high hopes, increased attention and fanfare, she isn’t getting ahead of herself.
“I have no pressure on me,” she said. “I’ll go out there and do my best, but I always look at it objectively.”
“I need to look at that and not be defined that I have at the Olympics, but rather, did I execute my game plan?’
Fortunately if she executes that game plan, there’s a good chance a medal will be the result, thanks to a combination of natural talent and work ethic. In the summer, a typical training day is up at 7 a.m. and heading to WinSport. Then it’s hours of sprinting, jumping and weight-lifting, trying to find the perfect balance of strength without getting too bulky. During the season, it’s once again looking for harmony between competing, resting and maintenance.
“It’s a pretty exhausting time, especially mentally because of what we’re doing on the track, it is really draining,” she said.
When it comes to work ethic, Vathje can just look to her 86-year-old grandfather Sandy as an example. He still owns a family business and not only works every day, but has acted as Elisabeth’s de facto PR rep in finding sponsors. Stepping onto the European tracks, she knows they’re watching from across the Atlantic in the early Calgary morning.
And then there’s Mom. After flying in and out for the Lake Placed World Cup, Rita drove to Park City and then to Whistler. After driving home to Calgary and staying for a week, it was off to Germany for two more events. Then it was back to Calgary and out again for more European stops.
“Mentally she’s that support I need,” Vathje said. “I can step away from sport and I know if something’s wrong, I can complain to her or I can tell her exactly what’s happening and I know she has my back.”
“My family is the reason I’m still in sport, 100 per cent.”
As if her Canadian family wasn’t enough, the Maiers have welcomed her with open arms, as she stayed with them over the Christmas break. But the closeness could’ve happened a lot sooner, had the youngest-ever Olympic bobsleigh pilot acted on his initial feelings. According to Vathje, Maier first noticed her when she was a flagbearer at the opening ceremonies of the world championships during her first World Cup season.
“And he’s like, I want to date that girl,” she recalled. “It took him a year to talk to me.”
“By the time he finally talked to me, we hit it off immediately.”
But before the two can get married next month in paradise, it’s time to live the dream in South Korea. And although she’s focused on executing that game plan, she makes no secrets about wanting to see that Canadian flag rise up. Not just for herself, but for everyone.
“If there’s snow on the track and I unfortunately get stuck in snow, I still did the best I could do,” she said. “But I know if it’s on my best day and I can compete on my best, focused on exactly my game plan and I can execute it, then I believe I’ll be standing on that podium.”
Lucas Meyer is a reporter and producer for 660News in Calgary. He is also the play-by-play voice of the University of Calgary Dinos basketball teams. Follow him on Twitter @meyer_lucas.