Lake Manitou cottager off to the Olympics

Dave Greszczyszyn ‘Grizz’ and his Island-decorated Olympic sled.

His skeleton sled decorated by Kagawong artist

BERNE, SWITZERLAND—Tobogganing, or sledding, down a snow covered hill is just about every Canadian child’s rite of passage, but a hardy and select group of individual athletes takes that winter pastime to a whole different level—the skeleton racers.

Dave Greszczyszyn of Brampton, or “Grizz” to his friends and competitors alike, has been a long-time summer resident of Manitoulin Island and the 38-year-old athlete will be competing for Canada at the upcoming Olympic Winter Games in Seoul, South Korea and he will be bringing more than a little bit of Manitoulin along with him as he hurtles headfirst down the track for Canada.

The Expositor caught up with Mr. Greszczyszyn by Skype while he was training and competing in Berne, Switzerland last week.

“My parents were both teachers in Timmins and in Sudbury,” he explained. “One of their principals invited them to come visit them at their cottage on Lake Manitou about 40 years ago. They immediately fell in love with the Island. When it was time to head home, they looked around and discovered one of their friend’s neighbours had their cottage up for sale.”

His parents bought their Island dream vacation home and for the next 30-plus years, Mr. Greszczyszyn spent his summers exploring the waterways and byways of Manitoulin Island. “We went everywhere, hiking on the Cup and Saucer, Bridal Veil Falls, Meldrum Bay,” said Mr. Greszczyszyn. “We were three boys and our neighbours at the cottage in Newby’s Bay had three girls, we were all blonde and looked like we were all siblings and we went all over the Island.”

Mr. Greszczyszyn said that his summers on Manitoulin created a deep attachment for the Island that has lasted up to the present, even as he has travelled, worked, competed and trained in locations across the globe—including a stint as a teacher in Korea.

These days he still does a lot of teaching. You could consider it his “day job.”

“If it wasn’t for teaching I wouldn’t be able to do what I do in this sport,” he said. Mr. Greszczyszyn comes home to supply teach in the late spring and through the fall until the training season begins—primarily for the Peel Board in southern Ontario. But skeleton is just about his first love (barring of course his recently married wife Jessica Wiseman with whom he spent part of his honeymoon in the summer of 2017 on Manitoulin).

The sport of skeleton, explains Mr. Greszczyszyn, is one of the world’s oldest and most unique sports. It traces its history back to an early Indigenous piece of equipment that was brought back to Europe by serving British officers who were enthralled by the pastime. “They set up an ice slide down the side of a mountain in Berne and raced each other,” he said. The term skeleton comes from how the original metal sleds those early enthusiasts adapted from the Indigenous sled appeared to early observers.

In modern skeleton racing, a competitor sprints alongside a one-person sled and then dives onto the light vehicle, seeking to race down the side of a mountain on an ice track at speeds often exceeding 140 km. The skeleton racer aims to steer their light metal sled down the ice track and through the curves chasing the edge to build up the fastest speeds possible. Tenths of a second separate the top ranks of competitors in most world-class events.

Mr. Greszczyszyn is ranked 10th in the world in his sport, which places him in the top of a sport where experience and raw nerve come together at a literally breakneck speed. Not bad for someone who came to his passion at the venerable athletic age of 27. But he insists it is nowhere near as dangerous as it looks. Safety, just as in most sports, is paramount.

“It’s hard on the arms,” he admits. The micro adjustments involved in coaxing the maximum performance out of your sled can take their toll. “But we wear elbow and knee pads, helmets and other pieces of safety equipment, and because you are going down head first, you can see where you are going.”

Mr. Greszczyszyn’s equipment has another connection with Manitoulin Island in its artwork. A casual perusal of his name can cause even the bravest of commentator some trepidation as they attempt to trip it off of the tongue. “Most people on the circuit call me Grizz,” he laughs. “It’s a lot easier to say.” His helmet and promotional material feature a grizzly bear motif to go along with the nickname but it was while strolling through the farmers’ market in Kagawong that he was struck by the outstanding artwork of Rachel Bell.

“Her work was fantastic,” he said. Mr. Greszczyszyn chatted with the artist and soon he had convinced her to create an image to adorn his sled. “I told her I would love to get an image of her work on my sled,” he recalled. “When people see it they are really blown away. The sportscasters and other media really like it and they tend to latch onto it.”

“I am very excited that my work will be seen on the world stage at the Olympics,” said Ms. Ball. Although she has been working as an artist for many years, she admits that the sled artwork is forging a new path for her. “This is kind of a new thing for me,” she said. “It took me about 40 to 50 hours to create the original image, the drawings and ink, and then there was the graphic art designs that I digitally added into the background.” This work was a little more detailed than what she had been working on up until that fateful meeting below Bridal Veil Falls in the summer.

Ms. Ball has already seen a boost from the exposure on the international sports circuit—but from a completely different angle. “A fellow from down south got in touch with me after he saw the artwork I did for Dave,” she said. “He wants me to do a series of oriental Zodiac images.”

More of her art can be found on her Facebook page, Wild Creations, or by looking her up on the art site Etsy. “Facebook is probably the best way to reach me,” she admits.

Meanwhile, Mr. Greszczyszyn’s sled will be showcasing her art on a global stage, even as the athlete seeks to secure the win of a lifetime. At 38 he admits he has his work cut out for him, even with more than 10 years’ experience. “A lot of the top guys are in their early 20s, and they have been at this since they were 14 or younger, so they have just as much experience and the reflexes of youth on their side.” Still, he plans to make a solid showing for his country.

“So much changes with the weather, the temperature, and each track is different,” he said. “You have a lot of decisions to make on each run.”

He obviously makes some very good decisions, as he is a three-time Canadian champion in the sport and regularly competes at the World Cup level, ascending the podium this past December 8 to collect a bronze medal at the World Cup in Winterburg, Germany.

Coming off of one of his personal bests, Mr. Greszczyszyn is clearly near the top of his game going into these competitions—and if there is something his life and career amply demonstrate, it is that he has an awesome ability to focus. As for dealing with the pressure, Mr. Greszczyszyn takes it all in stride. “It helps that I really love what I do,” he said.

So when Mr. Greszczyszyn races for Canada at the 2018 Olympics, more than a little bit of Manitoulin Island will be hurtling down that mountain with him.