Salt of Summit County
Every professional must be attentive to planning time efficiently, but Jon Owen must plan his day down to the minute six months in advance.
That’s part of why he works seven days a week. It’s not for the money, without his wife’s income he’d probably have to find a different job.
That’s just what it takes to run a junior luge program.
Becoming a luge athlete is not easy. There’s no retailer on Main Street selling the equipment. A pair of booties can cost $160 used and take six weeks to arrive. Amateur athletes can sometimes get hand-me-down sleds from the Olympic teams, but not teenagers in Park City. Owen has to make them himself.
There’s almost nowhere to train. Only cities bidding to be Olympic hosts build tracks. It’s also not a sport where talent becomes evident if just given the opportunity. Winners and losers are determined by one-hundredths and one-thousandths of a second, so training six days a week is the only way to become competitive.
But Owen loves the sport, he loves coaching and he loves working with youth.
"Kids are awesome. There really is optimism out there," he said.
Any adult can succumb to thinking the world is going to hell in a hand-basket, but young people tend to express the opposite sentiment and Owen said he thrives off that.
Besides, he explained, any kid with enough commitment to train six days a week for something tends to go on and do great things, luge or otherwise.
"It’s fun to be a part of their lives," he said.
He’s also had the honor of seeing children who’ve never climbed on a sled before grow up and join the Junior National team competing for World Cups. One of his first 12 was on the 2006 Olympic team.
Practice-time on the track at the Olympic Sports Park must be well organized. Not only must the track be well-maintained, fully-staffed and shared with the bobsled programs, but improperly scheduled runs mean a loss of track-time for some of his athletes.
"It takes 10 hours of administration for every hour on the ice," he said.
A native of Maine, he began his winter sports career as a skier and ski racer.
"There’s only enough catch nets you want to get intimate with before you move on," he said.
He saw the luge on television in the 1980 Olympics and was mesmerized. He began writing letters to Lake Placid trying to learn more, but never received a reply. In 1982 he visited the city and decided that if he couldn’t have a go on a sled, he’d at least buy a tee-shirt.
The owners of the tee-shirt shop happened to be involved in the program.
"I got on a sled in November and never got off," Owen said.
He was on the 1988 Olympic team and was an alternate for the 1992 team. He finished that season coaching in Lake Placid and really enjoyed it. The Luge Association liked the way he worked with youth and allowed him to start the program in Park City in 1995.
The track wouldn’t be completed for another two years, but there’s a lot of training that needs to be done before an athlete is ready to sled on a course. He started a team of local youngsters and on local ski slopes taught them "natural track" luge.
If Olympic-style luge could be compared to Formula One racing, "natural track" is like Motorcross racing, Owen said. It’s the X-treme sport version of luge. His partner, Shumilov, is one of the top racers on this kind in the world, but it isn’t an Olympic event.
Because the track can be made on ski slopes, Owen was able to get his team ready while working on the committee to design the Olympic Sports Park. When it was finished, a full five years before the 2002 games, Owen had a junior luge team ready to sled the first day it opened.
Owen said he’s always been fascinated by the technical aspects of his sport. He knows a lot about tracks and their maintenance. He also knows a lot about sleds. As an Olympian, he learned how minor design changes can compliment an athlete’s sledding style.
When he moved to Park City, he requested fiber glass molds from Lake Placid and can now make a sled in his shop from raw boards bought from a lumber yard all the way to the finished product.
This is actually one of his favorite parts of his job. He tries to schedule that work to be on Fridays to have a positive start to his weekend. He’ll also end a day in the shop if it was particularly stressful.
"It’s therapy through horsepower; the worse the day, the bigger the machine I turn on," he said.
Despite his love for the sport, Owen hasn’t been on a sled himself in eight years.
He said he doesn’t see any point in engaging in the meticulous planning for his own pleasure. He’s sometimes tempted to go down on a slow night with the adult recreation group, but hasn’t yet.
Instead of on a sled, visitors to the sports park can find Owen standing on a specific platform near one of the largest turns.
"I ought to have a name placard right here," he joked.
That turn requires three steering moves (performed by a kind of rotating stretch involving the legs and shoulders) in 1.5 seconds going 80 miles per hour and they can’t tense up or it will slow the sled. Many of the most difficult techniques of the sport can all be monitored in that one turn.
Owen said he only misses sledding himself when the senior World Cup comes to town.
"That’s the circus I lived in, and that’s when I miss it," he said.
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Park City officials are preparing to take what is considered to be an important step in protecting the Treasure land from wildfires. City Hall in early June requested proposals from firms interested in the work.