Updated: June 17, 2014 12:58PM
Although our winter finally is over, there is a cool opportunity for youngsters ages 9 to 13 to get a taste of a winter Olympic sport on Saturday and Sunday as the USA Luge Slider Search makes its only Midwest stop this year in the Chicago suburb of Westmont.
Slider Search is an athlete recruitment tool for identifying, training and qualifying young athletes for the USA Luge Junior Development Team, a step many take in the training ladder toward the Olympics.
For some youth, the Slider Search could be an exciting first step toward a future pursuit, but for most, it’s a unique and fun experience. Participants get a T-shirt, and it’s all free.
“This is a nice way to give people a luge experience and to bring the sport to the people,” said Gordy Sheer, a 1998 Olympics silver medalist who is now with USA Luge.
California, New York and Washington, D.C., are the other stops for USA Luge Slider Search this year. The Westmont event is at Cass Avenue and 55th Street, with a hilly section of the street closed to cars but open to luge sleds for the event.
“It’s an opportunity to drive a wheeled luge sled on a city street. This is a progressive experience, so they start slowly and build speed with each run, and then drive through cones. With every ride, they give coaches an idea of the control they have and how they respond to the coaches,” Sheer said. “The coaches have evaluation sheets on each slider. At the end of the Slider Searches, they prioritize the evaluations and then invite a few of the participants to screening camps in the fall and winter. From there, the cream of the crop are invited to continue on.”
He said there are many steps in the development of a luge competitor.
“The D (development) team is the first level. They have about 80 days per year in training over the summer and the winter break,” he said. “The summer program emphasizes strength, which is necessary for the start of each luge run.
“Since this is an experience-based sport, it’s best to get an athlete on a sled as soon as possible. When they’re young, they are like sponges and soak up what they learn, so the idea is to have them soak up good habits and training.”
He said that although luge may look simple, being good at it is not.
“The best athletes are so good they make it look like they’re just laying there,” he said. “But if you did that you would only make it to the first curve. What it takes is an understanding of the physics of it all, how to drive and fix mistakes, always making minor corrections by shifting body pressure. They try to keep the sled within an inch or two of the perfect line on a track while trying not to look, because raising your head causes drag that slows down the sled, and while keeping your body relaxed — all while going 90 mph inches from the ice. It’s fun and challenging.”
He said one athlete from a Chicago-area Slider Search, Becky Wilczak Brand, went on to be an Olympian, finishing fifth in the 2002 Olympics. Another athlete first introduced to luge at a Slider Search is Erin Hamlin, who earned the bronze medal at the recent Olympics in Sochi, becoming the first American to medal in Olympic luge singles.
“At every Slider Search stop we’ve found kids we can fold into the program,” he said. “Come out and give luge a try. You never know where a fun afternoon will take you, maybe all the way to the Olympics.”
To register a 9- to 13-year-old for a slot in the free clinic, call (800) 872-5843 or visit www.usaluge.org.
Those beyond that age range who want to try luge, don’t despair. There is a luge fantasy camp each spring in Lake Placid, N.Y. Visit the website for details.