In November 1982,
I went to tiny Igls, Austria to spend some time with the U.S. National Luge
Team, which was training there.
On the morning of
my first day, I was standing on the lip of the luge track while a bearded man
called "Bullet Bob" Hughes, the U.S. team manager, ran through the
basics for me: A luge track is about three-quarters of a mile long; there are
around 14 curves per track—some wide, some tight. Lugers steer their sleds with
their feet and shoulders, and they wear only crash helmets for protection. They
call themselves "sliders," not lugers.
My lesson was
interrupted by a rumbling sound that rapidly grew nearer. "Here comes
somebody," said Hughes. I stared at the 20-foot wall of ice in front of me.
Suddenly a blue-and-white blur shot across it with a whoosh and disappeared
down the track.
I blinked in
disbelief. "That was Frank," said Hughes as he scribbled in a red
notebook. "His left shoulder was a little high. He's losing lots of
For the rest of
the day, we observed sliders from every possible angle: standing along the
straightaways, crouching low in the massive semicircular Kreisel curves,
looking down from the wooden bridge above the S-shaped labyrinth turns. Sliders
from 15 countries came streaking above us, below us, in front of us. Each time
an athlete whizzed by, sometimes at speeds approaching 70 mph, I noticed how
stiff—how passive—he or she appeared to be. In fact, the fastest times were
produced by the racers who exhibited the least exertion.
I asked Hughes
about this the next day and he nodded as if I'd just answered the 25-point
bonus question. "Right. That's the trick," he said. "You've got to
lie back. Minimal movement. Total relaxation. Sort of become one with the
I returned to the
track and watched some more. Sure enough, it seemed that most sliders were
pretty much just along for the ride. It seemed at times that more effort might
be expended in a single swing of a baseball bat than in an entire luge run. And
for this they award medals at the Olympic Games?
By the fifth day
of my trip, I found myself mumbling that most foolish of clich�s: "Geez,
even I could do this." When I proposed the idea to Hughes at breakfast, he
looked me over to make sure I was serious. And then he said O.K., that I could
take one run, starting from about two-thirds down the track.
quickly of my intention, and each team member came up to me during the week to
offer advice. It was almost always the same: Keep your shoulders back, keep
your movement minimal and stay relaxed. I wondered why they made such a fuss
about doing next to nothing.
The night before
my scheduled run, I went to see Svein Romstad, the U.S. coach, at his hotel to
pick up some more specific guidance.