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Luge: An exercise in fear vs. calm

Tuesday, January 31, 2012 | 7:43 p.m. CST; updated 8:03 p.m. CST, Tuesday, January 31, 2012
The Muskegon Luge in Western Michigan is one of three tracks in the United States and the only one truly accessible to the public on a regular basis.

Note: Earlier this month, Missourian reporters Ben Frederickson and Harry Plumer had a chance to try the sport of luge. The following is a report on their experiences.

MUSKEGON, Mich. — In the chute, the instructions echo.

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Lay still. Keep your head back. Steer with your inside shoulder and outside leg. Start before you get into the turn. Keep your elbows in.

Each instruction — foreign to today’s group of luge sliders until just moments ago — are punctuated by a far more familiar sound.

Thump-thump. Thump-thump. Thump-thump.

Racing hearts are the only noise on this quiet, snowy afternoon in western Michigan.

Thump-thump. Thump-thump. Thump-thump.

The tension builds as the start draws closer. Looking down the track from the chute, only the first turn is visible. The rest of the track is a mystery.

On the way up the steps, race director Tracy Lorenz, a veteran of luge, a former newspaper columnist and Muskegon native made a comment.

“When you get up there, you’ll forget everything. Once you let go, you just hang on.”

So far, that hasn’t happened.

Head back. Toes pointed down the track. Inside shoulder, outside leg.

A voice pierces the air.

“Track is clear.”

The Muskegon Luge employee at the top, known to the sliders as Katie, looks down at the next participant.

“Ready?” she says.

“Does it matter?” he responds.

Instead of answering, she pushes him down the chute. She looks up at the group of waiting sliders.

“He was shaking,” she says.

The shaking doesn’t go away. You might think the first emotions of a luge run are excitement and thrill. On this day, it’s fear.

Fear of crashing. Fear of embarrassment. Even fear of death.

In the chute, the images of Georgian Olympic luger Nodar Kumaritashvili’s accident during a training run for the 2010 Olympics are impossible to forget.

***

The whole world saw the horrific video of Kumaritashvili flying off of his sled at 90 mph, striking a light pole and dying almost instantly.

And even though Kumaritashvili was traveling three times the top speed participants reach in Muskegon, the track in Vancouver was manicured by professionals and designed for athletes at the highest level of the sport.

Muskegon’s track is flanked by wooden walls and maintained by workers from a local prison. It’s one of three tracks in the nation, and the only one truly accessible to the public on a regular basis.

The other two, in Lake Placid, N.Y. and Salt Lake City, are mostly used for Olympic training and development. Those tracks are also longer, steeper and more difficult to maneuver than Muskegon.

The assumption might be that sliding on the “small track” might take some of the excitement out of the experience.

At 30 mph, it doesn’t feel small at all.

***

The first turn, called Frank’s Bank, is a tantalizingly easy right. Moving slowly, it’s not hard to remember the basics.

In with left leg. Right shoulder down.

The sled steers. Walls avoided.

This is doable.

The second turn, a left, comes quickly. The natural momentum from the first turn sets up the sled for the second.

In with right leg, left shoulder down. This is easy.

Then, chaos.

Turn three, called Ping, is a very slight right — like the gentle bends in the highway on the nine-hour drive from Columbia to the Muskegon Winter Sports Complex.

In luge, gentle turns mean high speed.

It comes before you’re ready. Before the brain can compute how to steer. Before the brain can compute how to do anything.

Whatever comfort, whatever sense of, “Hey, I can do this” that existed in the previous eight seconds vanishes. Confidence gives way to confusion and fear. Controlled thoughts turn to panicked expletives.

Which leg goes in? Is it the right leg to go right? That makes sense. Right to go right, right? Or is it left? Maybe just push in with both? Oh, bleep, this bleeping thing is going really bleeping fast.

It doesn’t matter which leg steers. You look down and notice your legs aren’t even on the sled.

Chaos turns to panic. This has gone from a lazy canoe ride to whitewater rafting.

This is the moment that separates the trained sliders from the first-timers.

Bleep bleepity bleeping bleep.

Shoulder meets wall. A hostile thud.

It burns.

No time to consider injuries. Even if it were serious, the sled has no brakes.

Once you go, you’re gone.

***

The experts will tell you luge is not an adrenaline sport at all. That flying down an icy track at 90 mph is done in some sort of meditative, tranquil state that is hard to achieve for most people even while completely still.

“That ‘yahoo,’ screaming style, I don’t know that that works,” three-time luge Olympian and 1998 silver medalist Gordy Sheer said. “You have to go into an ultra-focused state.”

Perhaps, after hundreds of runs that is possible — even easy.

The first time, not a chance.

“You’re in fight mode, you never give up,” Sheer said. “If you’re in rough situations, fear doesn’t enter the picture.”

Easier said than done when all that separates a slider from the ice is a piece of canvas and two metal runners called kufen. When the only way to control the sled is by pushing in with the inside of your leg on one of those kufen, calm seems laughable.

The sled’s most important feature is the two handles underneath the fabric. They help sliders keep their arms in tight to their bodies.

They also provide a place to hold on for dear life.

***

Out of Ping, only one turn remains: The Verizon. A 200-degree bank of ice that had at least one slider perpendicular to the track.

On a world-class track, a turn like Verizon taken at high speed can produce more than five times the force of gravity.

On this day, Verizon might have produced 1-½ G forces.

That’s plenty.

A blue line painted on the wall measures how high the ice should be. When you’re at that point, with a rigor mortis grip on the handles, almost to the very end of this 20-second foray into the out-of-control, one thought stands alone.

Don’t fall off the sled.

Only the finish line remains after the Verizon. Crossing it doesn’t mean you’re done, though.

There isn’t even a moment to process.

Once sliders cross Muskegon’s line, they enter a flat, 100-meter straightaway designed to slow them down before they blast through two canvas pads at the end of the track.

Believe it or not, the pads are a recent addition.

“We used to just go off into the trees,” Lorenz says.

To slow down, sliders slam their heels to the ice. Snow blasts up.

By the time it’s finally over, sliders look like they’ve been face washed into a snow bank.

That’s when the floodgates of the mind open. The thoughts that were blacked out over the past 20 seconds rush back in.

Left shoulder. Pain. Was that a good time? Are people impressed? Left shoulder. Pain. Did I look like a moron? Is winning this race a possibility? Left shoulder. Pain.

That’s when luge turns from a death wish into something resembling a sport.

There isn’t much time to reflect on that, though.

There are more runs to come.


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