CARLISLE, Mass. – At the top of a hill on Church Street, near the center of a New England town, sat a USA Luge van with a ramp attached to its trailer.
Atop the trailer, an organizer positioned each kid flat on their backs on a sled with wheels. After a quick pep talk and some steering advice, another kid is released down the ramp, quickly reaching impressive speeds.
Chances are there isn’t a luge team at your local middle school or a public course around the corner. Aside from some primetime coverage every four years during the Olympic Winter Games, the sport does not receive much air time.
However, there are kids out there with a sincere interest in navigating a sled down an icy track at speeds of 80 mph, and the USA Luge team wants them. That’s where the program’s top recruitment tool, a multistate testing tour called the Slider Search, comes to the forefront.
At each stop, boys and girls ages 9 to 13 take several runs down a paved street on wheeled sleds, an exercise that mimics the luge experience. If the Sept. 22-23 event in Carlisle, Mass., was any indication, the team will have some wonderful additions in the near future.
“We saw 80 kids and, more importantly, many that were athletic and performed well on the sleds,” said Fred Zimny, recruitment manager for USA Luge. “Ultimately, that’s what we are looking for, and there will be several that will receive an invitation to one of our winter training camps at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid in a few months.”
Along the roughly quarter-mile route in Carlisle, parents nervously watched. Some mirrored their child’s apprehension, or lack thereof, as was the case with Alyson Preston’s 10-year-old son, Louis.
“I am (nervous), but he’s not,” said Alyson Preston, who has seen Louis tackle plenty of risky courses with his skateboard and snowboard. “It looks really steep to me, but the things they do on their skateboards look steep to me and the hills we find. They can do it. He definitely has the thrill-seeking aspect to his personality.”
That, as much as anything, is what evaluators need to see. Hurtling oneself down an incline on one’s back, whether ice or pavement, is something that can cause the heartiest soul to turn back. The sight of some participants crashing into hay bales along the side of Church Street was enough to let any observer know that this was not your average toboggan ride.
Zimny said the evaluation process, which also includes a battery of fitness tests, helps assess those levels of bravado, as well as the more obvious measures such as steering. But not just any form of steering. It has to look right.
“There’s steering and there’s steering,” he said. “Are they very fluid with their movements, or are they short and choppy with them? That’s critical.”
This was on full display in Carlisle. Organizers increased the difficulty of the course as the afternoon wore on, using orange cones to turn a straight downhill into a slalom that became tighter and tighter. As the course changed, the separation grew. Some kids were able to navigate the run but exhibited late, choppy turns. Others displayed the fluidity that USA Luge likes to see.
Recruiters also are looking for eagerness and joy in the activity. After the initial show of nerve and steering capability comes perhaps the most important factor in the recruitment process.
“We could go out into the general public and get Boy Scout troops or Girls Scouts to come out and try a luge, but nine out of 10 of them don’t even want to be there,” Zimny said. “With the Slider Search clinic, these kids have made an effort and have shown an interest that this is something that they want to do. That’s probably the most critical component in the whole program.”
The clinics, which have been conducted for 27 years, produced eight of the 10 members on the 2010 U.S. Olympic Luge Team, including 2009 world champion Erin Hamlin. It works, and those who turned out in Carlisle at least have an inkling as to how it all comes together. That answers some of the questions asked in living rooms every four years.
“As a kid watching the Olympics, it’s got to run through your head, ‘How do I get in there?’” said Dave Osborne, whose twin sons took part.
Debbie Bonzey’s son, Nicholas, always had a curiosity about luge but struggled to simulate the real thing.
“He was thrilled. He’s never ever had a chance to do anything (in luge). He just kind of lies on the skateboard in the street, and that’s all he’s ever done,” she said. “So he was excited to try it out.”
Nicholas, and others, may soon be excited for the next step, an invite to train in Lake Placid and perhaps earn an eventual spot on the U.S. Junior Development Luge Team. And if all goes well, that early fall day in Carlisle will have set the stage for Olympic glory.