Children 9-13 years old learned luge sledding — on wheels, for now — with the help of Team USA.
By Ben Watanabe | Monday, May 20, 2019 8:49am
CAMANO ISLAND — The first run was over in seconds.
Then came another dozen or so for each of the seven children trying luge for their first time Sunday at Arrowhead Ranch.
By the three-hour morning session’s end, the thrill-seeking curious kids were cruising down the track’s entire length, almost 1,000 feet. What started as a 9 a.m. lesson with timid luge learners, let’s call them lugelings, built to a longer and faster ride by 11, topping out around 20 mph.
“It really shocked me on the first try,” said Aidan Meadows, a 12-year-old from Bothell.
USA Luge, the national arm of U.S. Olympics that shepherds the sport’s next generations, was in town with a few pros to spread the word this weekend. On Saturday, morning and afternoon sessions had about 20 children. Letting kids from 9 to 13 years old try a non-ice version is also a scouting of talentto see if, just maybe, there’s a future Olympian out this way, hundreds of miles from the nearest U.S. luge track (though Whistler, B.C., has an ice track about 190 miles from Everett that’s a vestige of the 2010 Winter Games).
Aidan’s mom, Meghan Phelps, learned about the USA Luge/White Castle Slider Search because her Camano Island parents told her. She didn’t know much about the sport or its ilk beyond the movie “Cool Runnings” about the Jamaican bobsled team (which is a different sport with some similarities). That led to viewing some YouTube videos of the swift, sometimes harrowing sport.
For the athletic Aidan, who plays lots of organized team sports, controlling the luge was a fun challenge.
“He loves anything that’s a dangerous sport,” Phelps said.
As the lugelings became more comfortable, they started from higher up the track. That allowed them to practice steering and gain more speed.
With luge, like in all time trials, speed is the name of the game. Aidan was clocked by Arrowhead Ranch owner Randy Heagle with the morning’s top speed, 21 mph. One of the instructors and a former USA Luge athlete, John Fennell, also hit 21 mph as he wound through several of the cone markers.
Parents and onlookers tried goading him into another showcase fast run. He declined.
“I’m retired,” he said.
Fennell and fellow former USA Luge athlete Aidan Kelly were accustomed to gliding above the ice track at closer to 80 mph. The world record is 96 mph.
Even at 20 mph, the sport had its risks. Imagine a bike or car traveling at 20 mph. Then imagine having to slow down via the Flintstone method, dropping your shoed feet down to skid to a stop. At the bottom of the track, there was a consistent scent of burned rubber as the lugelings’ sneakers doubled as brakes.
In ice luge, gravity provides the brakes.
That’s something about 80 Slider Search participants, out of an expected 700, who get invited to one of the USA Luge training camps will learn more about later this year. The tour includes six cities: Columbus, Ohio; Palo Alto, California; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Westmont/Chicago, Illinois; and Appleton, Wisconsin. Camano Island was the third stop. At the end, some of the standouts will be asked by the USA Luge development program to practice in Michigan, New York or Utah.
It drew people from the area, including several from Stanwood and Camano, familiar with the soap box derby races at Arrowhead Ranch. That included a father and son who drove five hours and about 400 miles from Cove in Eastern Oregon.
Sam Delaney and his son, Reese, are regulars in the soap box derby circuit. He said the speed similarities between the soap box races Reese takes part in and luge made it less daunting for him, while posing a problem in learning a new way to steer. In a soap box car, a steering wheel or other device controls the wheels. On a luge, it’s about shoulder pressure and the displacement of body weight.
They’d been to Camano Island previously for a soap box rally and were happy to visit for the weekend to try luge.
“This is a cool event,” Sam Delaney said.
John Porter, a luge coach for 25 years, greeted the lugelings at the bottom of the track. He’d remind them to apply their brakes (shoes) and keep them clear of bumping into the hay bales.
At the other locations he’s been to as part of the Slider Search, tracks are usually half the length of the one at Arrowhead Ranch.
“This is a wonderful facility for them,” Porter said.
As someone who instructed luge athletes, he said athleticism, drive and height are critical to top-level luge sledding.
“Generally, our national team athletes tend to be taller,” he said.
Indeed, both former pros on hand to teach that day were tall.
And one day, one of the Camano Island lugelings may grow to follow in their stead.