Starting down that slippery slope

Luge: For trainees, it's all downhill from here, and that's the whole point.

June 25, 1999|By Georgia N. Alexakis | Georgia N. Alexakis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- American lugers train in rugged upstate New York, and they compete atop snow-covered mountains in Germany, Norway and Austria. But this summer, the U.S. Luge Association has decided to hunt for its next generation of Olympic lugers in the midst of a typically sweltering August in Washington.

Evidently, a little mid-summer mugginess isn't enough to stand in the way of an Olympic search.

Picture the luge event: athletes lying face-up and feet-first on a sled, barreling down 1,000-meter-long ice-packed tracks at more than 80 mph. Then imagine the ideal place to find young luging talent.

An outdoor youth clinic, held on a summer day on Capitol Hill, probably doesn't leap to mind.

Yet that is precisely what those who run the USLA have in mind. And they don't hesitate to explain why.

"There's no such thing as Little League luge," says Sandy Caligiore, a spokesman for the association. "We can't wait for the kids to come to us. We need to find them, and this is the time of year to do it."

Indeed, for the past 14 years, the luge association has spent its summers crisscrossing the country, holding street clinics throughout New England, the Mid-Atlantic and the West designed to teach children ages 10 to 14 the fundamentals of the sport.

Undeterred by the fact that a real luge track -- or any icy surface -- is usually hundreds of miles away, the coaches simply add wheels to the sleds and send the youngsters zooming down a portable ramp and through a traffic-cone slalom course at speeds up to 20 mph.

Does it pay off? The USLA struck gold -- or at least bronze -- at a 1988 clinic in Palo Alto, Calif., that attracted Brian Martin, a 13-year-old with no luge experience. Ten years later, Martin and his partner, Mark Grimmette of Muskegon, Mich., finished third in doubles luge in the Nagano Olympics.

For Caligiore and his crew, the trip to Washington -- one of eight cities where clinics will be held this summer -- means another chance to find another Martin. The clinic will be held literally in the shadow of the Capitol, with children racing down a quarter-mile stretch of Constitution Avenue. Yet Caligiore says he's excited not by any patriotic symbolism but by the simple fact that Washington represents an untapped vein of potential talent.

"It's not our intention to come to Capitol Hill waving Old Glory," Caligiore says. "We are an American team, and we do represent the United States, but we're coming to Washington, D.C., because we're looking to put together a team. We're looking for talent."

The best among those at the clinic will be invited to train in Lake Placid -- home to one of the country's two world-class luge tracks and site of the 1932 and 1980 Winter Games -- alongside members of the junior national team. Ninety percent of that team, luge officials say, was also discovered as youngsters at summer street-luge demonstrations.

"They are really developing the next generation of lugers," says Rep. John E. Sweeney, a Republican from New York, whose district includes Lake Placid. "These clinics are going to show people that you don't have to be from upstate New York or the snowbelt of the Midwest to participate and excel in the sport."

Sweeney, who has been luging since he was a teen-ager, has such faith in the association's efforts he has sponsored a bill in the House allowing it to use Capitol Hill grounds for the clinic. Barring any opposition from the Senate, two three-hour clinics will be held Aug. 14 for more than 50 boys and girls.

The American summer clinics have proved so successful that countries with less-developed luge programs are starting to hold street clinics of their own.

Eric Maleson, a founding member of Brazil's luge association, recently spent three days in Rio de Janeiro teaching 30 teen-agers the fundamentals of luging. And, as with the clinic scheduled for Capitol Hill, he relied on sleds with wheels and traffic-cone courses to teach in a warm-weather climate.

"They loved it because they go so fast," says Maleson, who was introduced to the sport by an Armenian bobsledder he met in Boston. "When you tell them that real luge is done on ice and that they will go even faster, they love it more."

Maleson, from Norwell, Mass., says Brazil will be making its first Olympic appearance in the luge at the 2002 Salt Lake City games and is building a cement track where its luge and bobsled teams can practice. In the meantime, he watches the U.S. team and learns from their techniques.

Canadian luge officials say they, too, must develop their recruitment programs if they are to catch up with the United States, a country that -- lack of public interest aside -- has long shared the world stage in luge with Germany and Austria.

Canada's head coach, Rainer Maria Louisa, says the American team's junior luge clinics are a major factor in its international success.

"They start early, and that means they do better than us in world competitions," says Maria Louisa, who has luged in four Olympics. "We are just starting to do the same in Calgary, but we need to catch up."

But Rep. Lynn Rivers, a Democrat whose Michigan district includes Olympian Grimmette's hometown, says at the very least, the August luge clinic should serve to pique Washington residents' interest in a little-known sport.

"Given the fact that lots of folks down here don't know where Michigan is, don't know what snow is, and certainly don't know what luge is, I think this is a good opportunity to show everyone the kind of fun we have in the Great North," says Rivers, who has never luged.

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