Canadian Skeleton Racer More Nervous On The Track Than Fighting Fires

As a fireman Duff Gibson knows he faces danger every time he's called out to battle a blaze.

Fighting fires is a risk Gibson has come to accept but he still gets nervous every time he stands at the top of a skeleton track.

``I've got the bruises that remind me it can hurt if I'm not paying attention,'' the Calgary resident chuckled.

Gibson, 38, was recruited as a brakeman for the national bobsled team in 1995 but switched to skeleton in 1998. He's spent the last five years juggling a career as a fireman with skeleton racing, where athletes reach break-neck speeds hurtling headfirst down an icy track with only a helmet as protection.

``Realistically going to a fire has the potential of being more dangerous than what you would face going down a run on a skeleton,'' Gibson said in a telephone interview from the firehall where he is stationed.

``Every once in a while a firefighter is lost ... That really doesn't happen that often.

``With skeleton, you have the potential for knocking the wind out of yourself or smashing you head on the ice or, at the very least, giving yourself a good bang every single time you go. I think because of that I get a little more nervous doing skeleton than I do firefighting.''

Gibson kept his nerves in check enough last season to win the gold medal at last February's world championships. He finished second overall on the World Cup circuit with two seconds and a third and never finished worse than fifth in five races.

Gibson will join other top Canadian skeleton athletes for national team selection races this weekend in Calgary. His results from last year guarantee him a spot on the men's team.

This year's world championships will be held in Calgary, Feb. 14-27.

Gibson realized a life-long dream when he was named to Canada's team at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake. He left the Games disappointed after a 10th-place finish.

``I had been dreaming of going to the Olympics since I have a recollection of what the Olympics were,'' he said.

``As soon as I went and didn't win a medal I realized that it wasn't really my goal anymore to go to the Olympics. It was to go and be a contender and a medallist. Hopefully a gold medallist. That's what really keeps me going.''

At an age when many athletes are considering retirement Gibson keeps setting personal fitness and time records. He plans on continuing racing until the 2006 Games in Turin.

``For what ever reason I'm still getting a little bit better every year in both the driving and the physical aspect of it,'' he said. ``As long as that continues then I won't feel as though I'm hanging on or don't deserve to be there.''

His goal for this season is to be on the podium every race.

``If I can maintain that consistency and be in the medals almost every time, then that would be a really great confidence booster and a great stepping stone toward Turin,'' he said.

One of the challenges Gibson faces is covering his shifts at work while he's away competing in Europe.

Generally firemen work two day shifts, two night shifts then get four days off. While he's away he either trades shifts or pays other people to work for him.

This sometimes means he doesn't enjoy much time off when he returns from Europe.

``At the end of last year I got home at 5 p.m. in the afternoon, had dinner, went to bed and went to work the next day,'' he said.

Gibson thinks 2006 will be his last Olympics. He doubts he'll keep competing to the 2010 Games in Vancouver.

``I'd be 43 by the time Vancouver came around,'' he said. ``If I don't have the potential to win a medal then I'm taking a spot on the team away from someone who potentially could get better and better and be a medallist in the future.''