I BECAME A LUGER BECAUSE…
I grew up in Northern New York next to one of two luge tracks in America so I was very lucky. I started training aged 8 and, at the time, I had no idea that it was an Olympic sport; to me, it was just so much fun - the ultimate sledding - and I loved it. Where I lived, winter sports were always more popular than traditional sports so I grew up participating in them… skiing, ski jumping, cross-country skiing etc. The luge and bobsleigh track was the largest sledding hill near my house, which instantly attracted me. Initially, I considered bobsleigh but half the time you’d have to sit in the back; I wanted to drive. Plus the queue was huge and the turnover slow so, had I chosen that, I’d could only have driven once or twice each night. With luge, the faster you could run back up to the top, the more runs you could do. If I ran quickly, I could do 7-8 runs a night all driving. It was a no-brainer.
After 3 years, they stopped the programme and got rid of the luge track to create a new bobsled-skeleton-luge track. I was 11 and so disappointed. The only way I could continue was to try out for the National Team so that’s what I did. By age 12, I’d made the development team and, aged 13, the coaches saw something in me and decided to take me to Europe with the Junior National Team. Thinking about it now, it was a crazy and brave decision on my parents’ behalf. Imagine… a 13-year-old boy travelling around Europe with a bunch of 18-19 year olds for months on end. I don’t think many parents would have agreed but I’m happy they did.
‘Luge is the fastest, the most dangerous and the most technical of all the sliding sports, although it looks the easiest because we’ve been doing it for so long.’
THE SURPRISING THING ABOUT LUGE IS…
You have to start extremely young. Unlike other sports, if you don’t start training before age 13-14, you won’t have sufficient time to develop the skills to compete at World Cup level. We travel together for 7 months of the year from such a young age that we almost create our own ‘family.’ It’s a very unique experience. You have dozens of children from multiple countries travelling together for months on end so you build a special camaraderie. As well as being my competitors they’re also some of my best friends off the track because when you’re with each other day-in-day-out, living, working, training, socialising together, it becomes a family mentality. You annoy each other, support each other, help each other… and, ultimately, when racing, yes they’re my competitors but, actually, the only thing that can stop me from winning is my time trial. They’re not racing me at the same time so they can’t make me lose; only I can do that.
‘Luge is about ballet – it’s a finesse sport of going down the track’
Travelling with luge, we get to visit some incredibly beautiful and cool places but it’s not as glamorous as people think; it’s completely crazy. Things always go wrong on the road on tour; people are forgotten at airports, they miss shuttles...
HAS ANYONE SEEN MATT? We’re never in one place for too long and with the content moving, rushing etc., it’s like being in the movie ‘Home Alone.’ People are constantly being left at airports and asleep in bed. We’re all dashing around and, with so many people, it happens easily – even to our manager! This year, we were driving to a small town in Germany and he got into the wrong rental car at the airport. Everyone drove away and, unfortunately for him, nobody picked up their phones for 1hr30 so we didn’t realise. Other times, we’ve had to leave the hotel at 4am to catch a flight and people forget to wake up. It’s such a rush so we don’t realise it until we’re at the airport. Then everyone’s like ‘Oh, oh! Where’s Matt? Has anyone seen Matt? Ahh crap!’ Things like that happen all the time with travelling.
HUNGRY? HUNGRY! We visit really remote, quirky places where there are only bed and breakfasts; smaller places that aren’t even online. For example, in Innsbruck, Austria, it’s so easy to find a great hotel but in Altenburg, Germany, there’s literally nothing there so if you return to the hotel after an evening training session and they haven’t cooked enough food for the team, it’s tough. There are no other options to eat because nobody else is there so the whole town shuts down after 8pm. Sometimes the locations are incredible: St. Moritz is absolutely amazing; Berchtesgaden, Germany is great - even in Latvia the town we visit has many nice places but, when we’re in Altenberg or Oberhof, Germany, it’s like stepping back in time.
WI-FI WARS. Germany and Austria are the worst countries in the world for Wi-Fi. Whilst competing, I studied online so I relied on the Internet. In the end, I had to get pocket Wi-Fi because, when you arrive at the hotels, it’s not just the US team staying there, other national teams are there too… the Russians, the Germans… so, in a small town where there’s nothing to do and everybody’s using the internet for Skype, movies, games etc., the whole network completely crashes.
This year, in Latvia, one conference room had fantastic Wi-Fi but it was locked. We’d hear people in there and ask ‘Hey, how are you on the internet when we’re struggling to get any signal?’ They’d say ‘Oh we’re just on the normal hotel Internet’ but they’d actually got in there early, found the Wi-Fi password and hidden it from us. It’s hilarious now but, at the time, we thought ‘You son of a b****! How dare you do this to us?’ That was probably the biggest drama the team had seen all year… the fact that these 3 guys had hidden the Internet password to play video games.
‘Fun things ensue when you’re packed in living with each other for months on end.’
FAVOURITE PLACE TO COMPETE
I love competing in The Alps. I have 3 favourite tracks to compete at and they’re all there.
1. BERCHTESGADEN, GERMANY (towards the most south-eastern tip) has an incredible track that’s completely surrounded by mountains and nature. It reminds me of Northern New York where I grew up so it’s one of my favourite places to compete.
2. ST. MORITZ, SWITZERLAND. We train there alongside the bobsledders and it has one of the longest tracks in the world, travelling down from St Moritz to Celerina. It’s surrounded by snow-capped mountains and has such a sense of freedom. Stunning!
3. LA PLAGNE, FRANCE.
I also love competing back home in Lake Placid because I know that track extremely well and it’s always nice to have my family there to watch me race.
‘Listen to your body and mind. If something doesn’t feel right, don’t do it. Trust your instincts.’
WHAT MAKES A FAST LUGER?
The biggest misconception about luge is that we spend lots of time training on the track; we don’t at all. We only get to spend a few minutes on the track per day so most of our training is done in the gym or cross training. To be a great luger, you need to kit the perfect line, perform all the driving lines, have 100% confidence in yourself and hold perfect aerodynamic position. Then you’ll be fast, safe, relaxed and have a blast. The key areas to focus on are:
1. THE SLED is extremely sensitive. It reacts to every body- and ice-input so, if you come out of a curve and tense up, the sled will react and start to lose control. Similarly, the ice track is shaped by hand; we don’t have a perfect Zamboni-sculpted ice so there are many imperfections and bumps that, although miniscule, the sled reacts ever so slightly to.
2. EXPLOSIVE START. Creating an explosive start is vital. You can’t win with a good start but you can definitely lose without one. You pull off and paddle with your arms so try to develop a strong core, back and arms, as well as perfect body awareness, balance and coordination.
3. RELAX. You need to be relaxed the entire time and be confident that you have the skills to ride safely. If you tense up, the sled can easily become out of control; you’ll hit walls and crash and, at that speed, it’s very dangerous. The race happens so quickly; you don’t have time to think so you need be very calm and reactive.
4. FOCUS. Luge is the fastest, most dangerous and most technical of all the sliding sports. You need to have perfect focus, be able to think, correct and drive the sled well whilst travelling at an incredibly fast speed.
5. BODY TRACKING. Training your body to track the movements perfectly is key. The fastest person down the hill is always the one who corrects the best because there’s no such thing as the perfect run; you’re always going to make mistakes.
6. EXIT YOUR COMFORT ZONE. Being able to embrace pushing your personal comfort limits is key. To be perfectly aerodynamic, you need to need to put your head back and trust that you’re going in the right direction. Your head’s back and you can’t see where you’re going so your peripherals have to be 100% alert to spot cues. Cross-training (e.g. rock climbing, cliff jumping and gymnastics), especially in the more adrenalin-fuelled sports will help. Not only will they improve confidence but they’ll train your body to focus in intense situations; to think ‘OK, how am I going to get through this?’ Scouting landings, taking off and doing flips through the air will also improve body awareness, mentality and coordination.
‘My body often acts instinctively to perform drives. I’ll come out of a curve safely and think ‘Thanks mate! You got me out of that situation’’
I WISH SOMEONE HAD TOLD ME…
I’d never even considered this before starting luge but there’s a lot of disappointment. There are times when it’s so tough and you get so frustrated but you just have to keep going. When you experience success early in your career, you’re going to hit slumps. That’s natural but the problem is that we can only train on ice for a few minutes per day; that’s nothing! Getting out of a rut can take weeks and, when you hit the low, you stay down for a long time so you need to be prepared to accept that and ready to adapt.
‘It surprised me how much mental toughness you need for the sport. Ready or not, you are going to learn how to be mentally tough so get ready.’
Growing up, we had a Ukranian coach, Clint, who’d say some crazy, crazy things. I’ll never forget… When I was 14, we competed in Oberhof, Germany. I was in 2nd place after the 1st run which surprised everybody and then I messed up. Afterwards, he came over to me at the hotel - I was a little bummed about it all - and said ‘Chris, come over here’ I thought ‘Ok, Clint…?’ He said ‘Chris, today you pulled down your pants and you sh*t on my head.’ I thought ‘What?!’ and that was his advice. It became one of his ‘normal’ phrases, along with ‘If my grandmother had balls, she would be my grandfather’ and they were his words of wisdom. Afterwards, he’d just walk away whilst you’re thinking ‘Oookkkkk.’ They’re not advice at all but our team still says them to each other and they just mean ‘Try better. You can do better next time.’