‘I never considered any other sports. As soon as I started luge, I loved it. I’m naturally an adrenalin junkie and luge is the fastest, most dangerous and complex sport in the world so, as soon as I tried it, I was hooked.’
LUGER BY CHANCE; PERFECT MATCH BY NATURE
Luge athletes start competing at a much younger age than in other sports. I started age 10, more by chance than anything else. At the time, I didn’t even know what luge was. My dad worked for Horizon – the energy company sponsoring the event – and heard that they were looking for youngsters to try out. Knowing how athletic I was, he took me along and it all went from there. I loved sports and watching the Olympics on TV but had never considered it as a career option. Then after trying out, I started hearing the word ‘Olympics’ more and more. That really enticed me; I began to want it. Two years later, I made the National Team and several years later here I am, on my way to represent Team USA at PyeongChang 2018.
‘My dad didn’t know what luge was (or how dangerous it is) when he encouraged me to try out; neither did I, we just went for it, but I think he’d have encouraged me anyway. Whereas, my Mum didn’t see me race for the first 2-3 years and, when she finally did, she wasn’t very happy about it.’ ‘It sounds like what my parents would do.’
LUGE VS SKELETON
To spectators, luge and skeleton can seem similar disciplines and, to a degree they are, but they’re also very different. For example, most skeleton athletes have transitioned from another sport and don’t begin developing until 22 years old, whereas, by age 12, I was already competing on the National Team. That said, both athletes have extremely good understandings of how sleds work, how to manipulate ice pressure etc. It’s very difficult to make the National Team so, occasionally, you’ll see ex-luge athletes transition over to the skeleton and do extremely well.
Personally, I prefer luge because it’s far more technical and the sleds are more sensitive. We have to really drive them down the track and perform perfect steers – the smallest movements can make an enormous difference to the momentum and angles – so it’s more challenging. We have to have a very varied and in-depth skillset too, mentally, physically and scientifically. There’s always something new to learn so it’s completely captivating.
‘I enjoy competing against all of the athletes on the circuit – we’ve all grown up competing against each other so it’s fun – but my favourite thing is watching teams do well who don’t normally. It’s always nice to see new or unexpected teams win medals.’
‘AH, AH, AH, AH, STAYING ALIVE, STAYING ALIVE’ BEE GEES
Hurtling down the track, I’m thinking‘Stay alliivvve’ haha. That’s the first thing, although different tracks elicit different thoughts. Usually, I focus on the lines and, as I pass through a corner, I’ll already be thinking about the next one (i.e. considering the best way to approach it or, if I can’t achieve the ideal entrance, how to adjust as I’m going.) You’re constantly forward planning, reacting to how the sled feels going down and actively adjusting your body position to counter or hold. On really technical tracks, I’ll focus most of my attention on those aspects. For example, in Oberhof, Germany, there’s a very tricky labyrinth section of curves 8, 9 and 10 so, despite constantly thinking about navigating the next corner, my main concern is always that middle part of the track. Other times, I’ll be thinking ‘Put your head back… don’t look too much… make sure you’re relaxed… make sure you’re breathing… make sure you’re absorbing all the curves correctly…’ A lot happens up there as you’re racing. It lasts such a short time and you’re moving at an extremely fast speed; there’s no time to rest.
‘Luge is uber-competitive. Our race are timed down to the 1000th/sec. The only other ice sport with that intensity is short-track speed skating.’
‘You have to be very mentally strong. You need to have the confidence and mental awareness to get down the track, and stay focused without letting nerves affect what you’re doing. When you get nervous, your body freezes up and when your body’s the thing that’s maneuvering your sled, that’s bad.’
THE BIGGEST SURPRISE
Before my first Olympics (Sochi 2014), I thought I’d be so nervous about competing, getting to the handles etc. but I wasn’t at all. I felt confident, focused and ready. That really surprised me: how well prepared I was mentally. We work with sports psychologists and do regular mental training and mind runs throughout the year but the Olympic atmosphere and expectations on you are entirely different to the World Cups etc. so you can never really know how you’ll react.
90% of luge is mental: how you train; how you plan, execute and spontaneously counter the maneuvers down the track; how you think and feel… they all effect your race performance as much as, if not more than, the training itself. We really only use our physical strength for the first 3-4secs of the track when we’re pulling our start; after that, we’re just laying there and using our minds to know when to steer, how hard to steer, and to make sure that we’re relaxed, not nervous or tight etc.
THE LAST CHANCE SALOON: TERDIMAN & ME VS. THE TRIPLE THREAT GERMANS
Last season, my teammate Jayson Terdiman and I placed 3rd in the Overall World Cup Standings. That was really exciting but we didn’t think it was possible. The race was incredibly tough and a real battle. The German teams were already in 1st and 2nd place overall and we were battling for 3rd place with another German team – we had to hold them off and take the lead back from them. They almost went 1, 2, 3. Jayson and I held them off for a while; as long as we kept it up until the last 2 races of the season (when the final positions are confirmed), we’d be fine. We thought ‘Ok. If we do really well in PyeongChang, South Korea, we can increase the gap.’ That’s our best event but, out of nowhere, the Germans finished ahead of us and re-gained the lead going back to a German track. (They’re allowed to hold 4 events each season; the other nations are only allowed 2 each.) That should have given them the advantage but we were ready. We beat them on their own track.
‘Nailing the 2nd run applied a lot of pressure to our competitors. As Jayson and I entered the leader box, the German team was already there. We slowly watched their lead fall away as they navigated the track, until it inevitably was lost. We beat them by .04 of a second, taking the silver medal, and the bronze in the Overall World Cup Standings. A great day for us.’
That race was a complete rollercoaster. After the first run, they were in 2nd place and we were in 3rd. That gave us a single run to beat them. It was all or nothing. We couldn’t place 3rd and 4th because they’d still have beaten us. We had to place 1st and 2nd, or 2nd and 3rd. It was the only way so we went for it. We nailed it, actually finishing in 2nd place – enough to give us a 3-point advantage. Nobody thought that was possible – we even surprised ourselves! - but I’m so happy it did.
WHAT INSPIRES ME
I really like racing in the doubles category because having a teammate brings so much energy and support that the solo lugers don’t always get. It’s nice to be able to share your successes and disappointments with someone who knows exactly what you’re feeling.
I also love to challenge myself. I’ve always been competitive but as I get older, especially in the sporting world, it’s become more of a motivator. Your body and mindset changes and it becomes increasingly difficult to stay competitive with the younger athletes coming up. They’re so enthusiastic and trying to beat you so I enjoy the challenge of trying to stay out in front. It’s something that’s become more important to me because I know how much it takes to get here. For a while I struggled but I worked really hard and now that I’m here, on one of the top sleds in the world, I feel constantly inspired to keep challenging myself, to keep training harder and smarter and to improve every year. With the Olympics months away, it’s more exciting than ever.
‘You can’t be successful in luge without pushing boundaries. Hurtling down the track at 80/mph, we try to keep our heads back and look as little as possible in order to maintain a more aerodynamic position. We have to really trust ourselves but, if you want to be the best, that’s what it takes.’
ON BEING AN ARMY ATHLETE…
I joined the Army World Class Athlete Programme 7 years ago. At the time, I needed to do it. I’d reached a point in my career where I’d just missed out on representing Team USA in the 2010 Olympics. It was a last-minute race off and I’d lost by 1/100th second. I was totally heartbroken, totally depressed and had no real alternative career options. Joining the military gave me light. It gave me the financial freedom and support to continue training, and knowing that I’d also be developing a career gave me stability, something I needed.
It was definitely the best decision. The Military has been very supportive. By keeping me on active duty orders, they allow me to travel and compete; then, when I return, I can support them by telling people, especially other athletes, about the many ways they’ve benefitted me. I still do everything that a normal soldier has to (inc. weapons training) and it’s been a real honour to represent my country, not only as an athlete, but also as a serving military officer. There aren’t many soldier athletes in the USA but it’s certainly something I’d encourage. Not only has it been an awesome experience but, to be honest, it’s the only reason I was able to remain an active athlete so the difference that that one programme has had on my life, on enabling me to do something that I’ve worked so hard at and am good at, has been monumental.
But it doesn’t come easily… you have to win, to prove yourself and, ultimately, secure a place in the Olympics…
The Olympics is a 4-year process but, as an Army Athlete, the programme will only support your training for 3 of those years. On the fourth year, you have to return home and serve your regular time. The programme isn’t a sponsorship; you’re a soldier, just with slightly different orders. Your orders are to compete and rank highly. Each year, you’re set performance markers that you have to meet, culminating on making the Olympic Team. Had I not made the Olympic Team this fall, I’d have automatically been removed from the programme and put into normal military uniform, so the consequences and motivation to win are huge.
Matt Mortensen is an American Olympic luger and serving officer with the American National Guard. Follow his journey to the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics on Twitter