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NORTH COUNTRY AT WORK: How USA Luge uses tools to win medals

December 15, 2017
By ANDY FLYNN - Editor (aflynn@lakeplacidnews.com) , Lake Placid News

LAKE PLACID - The USA Luge team is busy preparing for the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, which are less than two months away. Before the Olympics, athletes and coaches will endure a grueling schedule of nine World Cup races. That includes a World Cup on their home track in Lake Placid this week, when the Olympic team will be announced.

People may think luging is easy. Hop on a sled and slide down a mountain on an ice track. But it's more complicated than that. It takes a lot of tools, machines, and precision to beat their competitors by milliseconds.

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Article Photos

USA Luge Head Coach Bill Tavares shows one of the tools the coaches use at the track, a thermometer for the ice.
(News photo — Andy Flynn)

Fine-tuning a sled and a toolkit for the track

Erin Hamlin of Remsen knows how to bring home an Olympic medal. Her luge career includes three Winter Olympics, and winning a bronze medal in Sochi, Russia, four years ago. Chris Mazdzer of Saranac Lake is still trying to get on the Olympic podium after competing in Vancouver in 2010 and Sochi in 2014. His career includes 10 World Cup medals and seven national championship titles.

In October, I joined them at the USA Luge headquarters in Lake Placid, where they've been located for nearly 40 years. They said there are two places they use tools and machines for their sleds: at the luge headquarters and at the ice track.

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"The bulk of the creative side and the manufacturing side has to be done ahead of time in the workshop before we're actually at the track or on the road," Hamlin said.

With sled parts manufactured off-site and shipped to Lake Placid, coaches and athletes start putting their sleds together. They start with the steels, which are attached to the kufens - those candy cane shaped runners. Those are attached to the pod with bridges. But Mazdzer says they're not like puzzle pieces.

"Yeah, so when equipment comes in, the steels and the kufens don't just magically fit together," Mazdzer said. "So what needs to happen is that the bottom of the kufen needs to be shaped, and the steel needs to be shaped so they can go together harmoniously. We're timed to the thousandth of a second, so it's all about precision. And when you're going 70, 80 miles per hour down an ice track, you want the sled to go straight. So any sort of inconsistency with the edge of the steel, the shape of the steel, that can cause the sled to not be straight, you'll have trouble controlling it."

Once the athletes pull off the handles and paddle their way down the start, they have no way of increasing their speed. It's all about aerodynamics and reducing friction on the ice. Going fast down the ice track starts with the steels.

"We have machines or devices that we are trying to pull down and to push and to bend the steel, just by hundredths of a millimeter."

Mazdzer says this process is all about accuracy, and they use lots of tools to measure exactly what they are doing. But eventually it comes down to elbow grease to get the steels just right.

"We have sandpaper and we are making these steels that, when they come to us they are cloudy, it just looks like normal steel, and we need to make them look like mirrors."

Once at the track, if something goes wrong with their sled, the athletes and coaches each have small toolkits to fix the sleds, filled with things like more sandpaper, wrenches, allen keys, and a ruler they use to measure the parallel of the steels. And lots of tape.

"Electrical tape," Hamlin said.

"Duct tape," Mazdzer added. "Gaffing tape. Medical tape. Hockey tape."

"Any kind of tape," Hamlin said. "Lots of duct tape."

"Masking tape," Mazdzer said.

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Dressing for success

When it comes to the uniform - the gloves, booties, helmet - every item is important. Every item is seen as a tool to help athletes win medals. And it all starts with the suit, made of high-tech material.

"They are not built for warmth," Mazdzer said. "They are not built for protection. They are built to just go as fast as possible. So we wear these very thin suits that are tight in all the wrong places."

Hamlin says the helmet is equally important.

"Just for the sake of our well-being! We wear our Kevlar helmet," she said. "It's obviously made to be protective for us but also very light. When we are going down the track there are some places where we hit up to seven Gs."

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Technology and people as tools

Head Coach Bill Tavares says his biggest tool is not found inside a toolbox. For that, he looks to the people on his team.

"When I think of tools I think of anything that helps me accomplish what I need to do to make the athletes go as fast as possible," Tavares said. "So I guess my most valuable tool would be my other coaches. Lubo (Lubomir Mick), who is, I consider, my head of the technical side of sled set-up. And also Bengt (Walden), who is in charge of basically starts, and he also helps sled set-up. Then there is myself. Matt Oakes, who is our sports medicine. And Keith Younger, who takes care of all my managing and logistics for the team. They would be I guess my most valuable tools."

But he says technology doesn't hurt either. Coaches use cameras to record the athletes and examine what they are doing wrong and what they are doing right. When it comes to beating an opponent by milliseconds, it's all about precision. And that means having tools to measure and collect data - for each athlete, sled, track, ice condition, and weather condition.

Tavares says his approach to the sport is a lot more scientific than it was 25 years ago, when he was competing on the USA Luge team himself. He credits his coach, Wolfgang Shadler, and the time he spent coaching women's bobsledding as influences. When he returned to USA Luge, Tavares pushed for designing and building pieces of luge sleds for the team.

When asked if he has all the tools he needs, Tavares said, "Oh God, not even close. Not even close. That is the worst question to ask a coach because I love to spend money. That is the worst question. Let me see, I can use a scanning machine that I can scan a part, put into a 3-D printer and get it printed. I could use probably still another welder that I can take on tour and leave in Europe ..."

The USA Luge team will compete in World Cup races in Lake Placid on Friday and Saturday, Dec. 15-16, at the Mount Van Hoevenberg track.

(This story comes to you from North Country Public Radio's North Country at Work project, which explores the working lives and history of our region. To see all the stories, check out www.ncpr.org/work.)

 
 

 

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