Learning to luge
As a longtime fan of the Olympic luge event, I’ve often wondered how it would feel to hurtle down an icy, steep track with no brakes, said journalist Sarah Larimer. There was only one way to find out.
We can start with the suit. It was blue, with splashes of red and white. It said “USA” on the left leg. There were these stirrup feet, which felt very 1990s. Sartorially speaking, it was not my sharpest look.
But it did make me feel extremely legit. I took three selfies in the mirror after I slipped it on. Dress for the job you want, they say, so here I was in Lake Placid, N.Y., dressed in my stirrup-footed luge suit.
Anthony Shimkonis, my luge spirit guide, slid my feet into booties, angled to help my toes point. He showed me a pair of gloves with spikes on the fingertips. He mentioned something about safety, how to avoid ripping my hand or whatever.
And then, reality came crashing down.
“All right,” Shimkonis said, giving me one more check. “I think you have the luge suit on backward, actually.”
So. That could have gone better, probably.
I had come to Lake Placid to learn to luge.
For some time, I had harbored this ambition, a fascination burrowed deep in my head, a whisper of a dream. I believed I could do it, too, which was both deeply weird and tremendously out of character.
I am a mediocre athlete with exactly zero luge-related experience. Perhaps more importantly, though: I am also not generally the type of person who goes around “believing” in herself. But learning this obscure winter sport in, like, a couple days? Sure. Why not?
Anyway, that was how I ended up in the Adirondack Mountains, and more specifically, the parking lot for USA Luge headquarters in Lake Placid. That was where Washington Post video journalist Jorge Ribas and I met up with Shimkonis, the guy who would spend a December weekend trying to make me luge official.
Shimkonis, who also went by Tony, is president of the Adirondack Luge Club, a group that helps promote luge, teaches amateurs such as me how to slide, and generally seems to have a killer time doing it. Tony is something of a luge evangelist. He speaks with such joy about this wild sport. The best slider, he likes to say, is the one having the most fun.
“Right this way for the adventure of your life!” Tony said to me in that icy parking lot, and I scampered off with him.
Because I was super ready for the adventure of my life.
A quick refresher: Luge is an Olympic sport in which participants maneuver sleds down an icy track. Sliders go feet first, not headfirst (that’s skeleton). Sliders lie on their sleds instead of sitting in them (that’s bobsledding). Sliders can reach speeds of—well, it’s fast. Really, really fast. Also, there are no brakes.
Of all the sliding sports, luge is the best. This is possibly more of an opinion than fact, but you can watch them all this month and decide for yourself.
“It’s really about control,” said Larry Dolan, a 1998 U.S. Olympian and a coach in the USA Luge organization. “Can you control your emotions? Can you control your mind? Can you control your body to do what it needs to do at 70, 80, 90 miles an hour?”
Being chill and in control is a pretty important part of launching oneself down a mountain ice chute, as it turns out. People tend to think sliders are these off-the-wall daredevils, said Fred Zimny, junior national team coach. But that type of person doesn’t necessarily excel in Olympic-level luge.
“You don’t see a lot of the fringe personalities, like you would think, involved in luge,” Zimny told me. “They’re actually very normal people.”
One of the first people we met in Lake Placid was Gordy Sheer, director of marketing and sponsorship for USA Luge, who was at the headquarters with his dog, Luna. Sheer was very normal (mellow, affable, wore a cool flannel) and also a former Olympian. He and his doubles luge partner, Chris Thorpe, took silver at the 1998 Nagano Games, the first year Americans medaled in the sport.
Steering is a nuanced act; it looks like you are just lying there. But sliders control the sled by pushing their shoulder down and/or pressing their leg against a runner. There are other things they can do, too: head tilts and stuff like that.
A good luge athlete, Sheer said, has an unusual combination of skills.
“It’s somebody who has good kinetic awareness, body awareness,” he said. “Someone who is able to relax under some pretty high-pressure situations and focus. It’s much more of a mental skill once you’re actually sliding.”
Later in the day, Shimkonis went with us to Olympic Sports Complex at Mount Van Hoevenberg, where I would take my first run. Young sliders happened to be there, too, for a casual day on the track. You could hear their sleds rumble down the ice.
“I just get little butterflies and stuff every time I walk up here,” Shimkonis said, as we passed under the track. “Think of all the athletes that came down this track, hoping for gold.”
Former U.S. Olympian Aidan Kelly, who now works as a coach and was up on the mountain that day, remembered his first luge run, on this very track.
“It was awesome. I wanted to go faster and faster,” Kelly said. “I just wanted to keep moving up the track.”
No nerves? No fear at all?
“No,” he said. “I just wanted to go. I just wanted to do it.”
One of the sliders out on the track was Elizabeth McKissick, a 15-year-old from Pennsylvania who is part of the Adirondack Luge Club. She got her start in luge through a clinic held in Maryland, part of a search program for new sliders. McKissick said the focus the sport requires has helped her deal with anxiety.
“All that matters is just you and the track,” she said. “And I love that.”
McKissick dreams of competing internationally, with the ultimate goal of making the Olympics. When she talked about the Games, she took off her glasses, overcome. Her eyes welled up.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I can’t imagine doing anything else with my life. And I can’t imagine what my life would be without luge. My life has just changed, so much, for the better.”
I slid on a Saturday night, when members of the Adirondack Luge Club gathered at the mountain. Larry Dolan, the coach, came out with his son, an 8-year-old named Gabriel, who wore a bright red suit that had once been his dad’s.
“Do you have any advice?” I asked Gabe before we set out.
“Ummm, keep your shoulders down!” he replied, enthusiastically.
“Keep your shoulders back, eh?” Larry said. “He’s a quick study.”
Journalistically speaking, conditions were subpar. Luge suits don’t really accommodate pens, much less notebooks and recorders.
I can tell you that the moon was bright and the night was still. It was cold. Super cold. My Adirondack Wear was also subpar, so that did not help. But also, I had only one layer on under my suit, a slight miscalculation, in that I needed, like, 57 layers.
My sled and I would leave from the lowest start on the mountain, which meant I would travel about 540 meters, not the full length of the track. There were six other sliders at the same start, including Gabe and two sisters, Sadie and Tess Martin, ages 10 and 8.
It all happened so quickly. Gabe left the start with a push from his father. Sadie went a little later, gliding down after a bit of gentle, last-minute coaching from Larry. After Sadie was Tess, whose blond ponytail poked out of her helmet.
Eventually, it was my turn. Shimkonis slid black arm pads up past my elbows, and Dolan moved my sled into position as I wiggled my hands into a pair of gloves. “You look really nervous,” Dolan said.
I sat on my sled and tapped my legs, indicating the steers I’d make in the first turns.
“Exactly,” Dolan said. “There you go. That’ll help you all the way down.”
Shimkonis patted me on the back, saying, “All right, you’re gonna get ’em, Tiger.”
Then, with a push from Dolan, I was off.
What can I say? My dudes, it was a marvel. A total joy. Bonkers fun. Also essentially impossible to describe, but I will do my best. The track felt smooth and true, even though it looks so bumpy on video. The run felt tremendously fast, even though I was going just about 30 mph, not even close to Olympic-level speeds.
Somehow, it really was relaxing out there, rocketing through the moonlight. I wanted to go faster and faster. I wanted to never stop.
I went down four times, each trip a complete delight. I remember grinning like a goofball, basically the whole time. I kept shouting a lot. Who knows why? Scratch that, I know why. Because luge is great, that’s why.
“You did good,” Shimkonis said the next day. “You’re coachable.”
Which I think means I can join the Olympic team now.
Before I left for this trip, I talked to some members of the (extremely small) luge community. I wanted to get a sense of what to expect. Also, as I was very interested in not crashing, I wanted some hot tips.
Dolan told me that after his last race, luge would still come to him in his dreams. About once a week it happened, he said. Those dreams are a little less frequent now. Shimkonis said sometimes, when he wakes up, his toes are pointed: luge position.
Excerpted from an article that originally appeared in The Washington Post. Reprinted with permission. ■