Luge might look easy — after all, it is the only Olympic sport where you get to kick back (literally on your back) in the name of work. But any luger will tell you it’s their job to make it look effortless. And even though 2014 Olympic luger Jayson Terdiman calls it the “greatest job,” there is a lot more to luge than just lying down on the job.
We asked Team USA lugers to share five reasons why hurtling down an icy track on your back without looking is not as easy as it might appear.
1) They Have To Control Their Bodies At Up To 90 MPH
“The easier we make it look, the better we’re doing our jobs,” said Terdiman.
“The whole way down the track we are trying to stay within an inch of an imaginary ideal line that is going to get us down faster than if we didn’t,” explained three-time Olympian and the first U.S. singles luger to medal at any Winter Olympics, Erin Hamlin. “And doing all that while not looking, and going almost 90 miles an hour.”
Terdiman’s doubles partner Matt Mortensen compared it to, “if you’re in your car and you’re going slow and you jerk on the steering wheel, not a lot is going to happen. The car is just going to move really fast in one direction. But if you increase the speed to say 80-90 miles an hour and you jerk on the steering wheel the same way, you’re probably going to roll your car or something really bad is going to happen,” he said.
“And it’s the same exact thing on a luge sled. If we make those sudden movements on a luge sled when we’re going really quickly, then we’re going to have a potentially catastrophic situation on our hands. We have to be really subtle. So if you can’t see what we’re doing on the sled, we’re doing a very good job.”
If you want to see the opposite of subtle steering, 2014 Olympian Tucker West suggested you “go watch some developmental sliders, maybe some junior races and you’ll see that we’re doing something. I mean those guys hit every wall,” he said.
“At this point in my career, most of what I do is easy. But it’s not because the sport is easy,” said Summer Britcher, who has won five world cup medals and a Youth Olympic gold medal. “It’s because it’s been the focus of my life for the past 11 ½ years.”
The 23-year-old added, “I can’t go out and throw a football like a pro quarterback, but I’m sure they would say that throwing was easy for them. But it’s because of all the training and all the time and skill they put into it.”
2) It’s Not For The Faint Of Heart – And Adults Need Not Try It Out
There are a lot of sports you can get started in later in life, but there is one very important reason it’s important to start luge early: fear.
West, who was the youngest male ever to represent the U.S. in the men’s luge at the Olympics, was 9 when he started. “I would be terrified if I tried luge for the first time now,” he said. “That’s why you start young.”
Hamlin explained, “Because luge is so challenging, you see kids start the sport pretty young,” she said. “There’s a lot that goes into the skill of learning how to read curves. Luge careers go a long time because the experience you get over the years helps you to be more successful.”
With the other sliding sports — bobsled and skeleton — Britcher said, “most of those athletes have a full college experience in some other sport, and then in their early- to mid-20s they discover the sport of skeleton and bobsled.”
Britcher admits to being terrified herself when she started luge at age 11.
“I was not entirely sure I was going to make it out alive,” but, she said “there were a lot of people who joined the team a few years later than me at 13, 14 years old. That’s when you start seeing kids who love the sport but they have this fear that is not in the minds of the kids who are younger.”
3) A Luge Start Is Its Own Beast That Could End Your Run
“My favorite saying is, 'You can’t win a race at the start, but you can lose a race at the start,'” Terdiman mused.
His teammate agreed.
“The start is really where it’s at,” Mortensen said.
Athletes start off seated on their sled and grab the handles at the start of the track to propel themselves forward. They then push off the icy track with spiked gloves to ensure a fast start before lying down as calmly as possible.
“Luge is challenging because you have to be so physical at the start,” West said. “You have to pull as hard as you can and be at like a level 10 in your mind. And then you have to come down quickly to around a level 3, because you have to relax getting on the sled. Your body is actually like a shock absorber for the sled. So the more you can relax, the quicker you’re going to go down the track.”
What makes it equally as hard is that, because there is nothing out there quite like a luge start, it’s hard to mimic in the gym.
“Because the start is a very powerful, quick movement, it’s the stark opposite of what we have to be doing when we’re going down the track where we are lying down and relaxing as much as we can,” Hamlin said. “So for that, we do a lot of Olympic lifting. Stuff that’s going to make us have powerful, quick movements.”
4) They Can’t Pull Techniques From Other Sports
All three sliding sports — luge, bobsled and skeleton — have some similarities, Britcher explained.
“Going down the track is pretty similar – the way we steer the sled,” she said.
But the thing that sets them apart is the running start.
Because the other two sliding sports have a running start, they are able to pull techniques from other sports.
“Bobsled and skeleton sprint at the start so they can pull from track and field, and football, and stuff like that,” Hamlin said. “But for us, the skill of driving down the track is more valuable than pretty much anything else, but that doesn’t come from any other sport.”
The fact that it is so unique is why she said, “there is no club or school or AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) luge to go and find kids from. You have to find kids and develop them from a young age, and teach them how to control a sled and how to drive it, and everything.”
5) It’s Almost All Upper Body
Since luge is the only sliding sport to not get a running start, lugers arms are their most important body part. So much so that Hamlin admitted that “we don’t really need our legs for much,” she said. “I still squat, but it’s just to keep weight on.”
That weight helps in a gravity sport. “Being bigger can help to a certain extent,” Mortensen explained. “If you are larger then you’ll probably have a high top speed going down the track — if you’re driving well and if you had a fast start. But if you can’t pull that weight then it’s going to put you at a disadvantage.”
Luge is a delicate “balance of aerodynamics, strength and weight,” Britcher said.
And because weight alone can play into your success or your failure — depending on the track — it is the reason why she recently decided to make an adjustment to her training.
“In the springtime — once the season ended — I made the decision to gain a good amount of weight going into the season and adapt my training for PyeongChang,” Britcher said. “Because that course has a pretty steep uphill end section to it, it plays more of an advantage to have weight there than it would if it were a higher speed track that is much longer.”
She considered calling the move risky because “it’s something you have to put thought into,” she said. “Changing your body type or how you’ve been training can really affect the feeling you have on the sled. And I was sliding well before. So to do something like intentionally gain 12-15 pounds, it can really change how the sled is going to move down the track.”