A ticket to slide
It’s been smooth sailing, or sliding, as the case may be, for the U.S. Luge team this week.
The sliders took to the Utah Olympic Park’s icy track Oct. 29 and will be practicing through Nov. 4 to get in some last minute training before the World Cup season kicks off in Lake Placid, N.Y. on Nov. 15.
Crew workers laid fresh ice on the track in mid-October and continue to make sure it is in good shape.
Their efforts were noted as all of the sliders commented on the condition of the ice.
"The track is phenomenal," said men’s singles slider Tony Benshoof. "A significant upgrade from Lake Placid."
The team has been practicing in Lake Placid since October, but with spotty weather in upstate New York, the track has been a bit bumpy and inconsistent. Ironically, the sunny Utah weather has also been a plus for the sliders.
Even though the team won’t be back to the Park City track this winter, the opportunity to train on a different track will help them prepare for the season.
"If you stay in one place, you get stagnant," Benshoof said.
The week wasn’t without its issues. Benshoof said that he is finally getting in comfortable in his sled after weeks of having trouble.
"It can be a downward spiral," he said. "I feel like I’m back."
The doubles luge duo of Mark Grimmette and Brian Martin are both dealing with back pain, aggravated by the strain of sliding and carrying heavy equipment. With gravity bearing down on the sliders during each turn, a strong back is essential. That is where Grimmette and Martin are especially paying attention as they try to heal their injuries before the first World Cup stop.
Each day brings about 10 runs on the track during a morning and evening session. In between are weight-lifting circuits or a team sport that promotes bonding and exercise. Much of the weight training is focused on strengthening the athletes’ backs, upper bodies and stomachs
"We do cleans, jerks, Olympic lifts and core work," Benshoof said. "Anything that works on your starting power."
The strength training also helps the sliders maintain their aerodynamic position on the sled.
"It looks simple on television, but it hard to be aerodynamic in the wind," Benshoof said.
mid-week, most of the Americans felt like they were sliding well, recording some of their fastest times of the season.
"The final runs were pretty fast," said Grimmette. "This time of year you are still looking for stuff to try to go faster."
"Now is the time when the rubber hits the road," agreed Martin.
Home-grown doubles luge slider Preston Griffall was happy to be back sliding on the track he grew up on. He said the high quality of the track came at the perfect time for the team.
"We appreciate that," Griffall said. "It’s consistent. At the beginning of the season, it’s what you need."
He also appreciates a chance to regroup before beginning the long season competing abroad. The Salt Lake native arrived a few days earlier than the rest of the team so he could reconnect with friends and family, sleep in his own bed and enjoy some home-cooked meals.
"I’m getting some nice cooking while I can," he said with a grin.
The off-season has been full of adjustments for Griffall who switched from the top driver position to the bottom of the sled and now has a new partner in Matt Mortensen.
"It takes time," Griffall said. "The style of sliding is completely different."
He said that he and Mortensen are learning to communicate well and he feels things are finally coming together.
"We’re working as a whole coming down the track," Griffall said.
With the Olympics still a few years away, most of the sliders have their eyes fixed on reaching the World Cup podium numerous times throughout the season. Germany still remains the world leader in the sport, but women’s singles athlete Julia Clukey says that the team’s depth should give them a legitimate shot to compete with the Germans.
"Heading into World Cup we should have 170 runs in, so we’re pretty confident," Clukey said.
This season they will be adding a new member to their ranks in the men’ singles division. Ashley Hayden married Swedish slider Bengt Walden over the summer, which means the U.S. team has added another talented man to their ranks. The addition should challenge Benshoof, who was without strong competition within his own team last year.
"With Bengt there, it should drive Tony," U.S. Luge public relations director Jon Lundin said. "It will be good for both Tony and Bengt."
The single women’s sliders are dealing with the opposite problem, with five talented sliders and only four national team spots. Erin Hamlin has already locked up one of the spots. Ashley Walden, Clukey, Courtney Zablocki, and Megan Sweeney will battle it out for the remaining three slots. A women’s team selection should be held over the weekend at the UOP to determine the final four sliders.
"We have a really strong women’s team," Clukey said.
Clukey has the fastest start times on the team so she’s hoping she will make the final roster.
"I have good physical strength, its just getting down the track cleanly," she said.
Luge will return to the track when the UOP hosts a Jr. World Cup tour stop Jan. 14-20.
U.S. team manger Fred Zimny says he hopes to see the World Cup return to Park City next season. Besides the speed and high quality of the UOP track, he says staying on the team’s home turf is always an advantage. With tracks in Calgary and now Vancouver, there may soon be four North American stops on the World Cup tour.
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