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Her career has been all downhill

by Mary Jane Bowie

“Fraulein, bitte. Put that thing up in the luggage rack!”

“But Herr Conductor, it’s too heavy and it won’t fit!”

“If you don’t do as I ask, I will put it off the train at the next station.”

And with that Teutonic decree, he strode off down the corridor, leaving me speechless amid the curious stares of the other occupants of my compartment.

So, having been threatened with the loss of my ‘companion’, I set off in search of a suitable resting place.

Where did my luge spend the remainder of the train ride? Would you believe in the women’s washroom! No one seemed to mind too much and I’m certain that old sled has many interesting stories to tell as a result.

The moral of the story? — aspiring lugers, please note — “If you can’t lug it to the luggage, put your luge in the loo.”

This episode occurred in early January, 1971, en route from Munich, West Germany, to Kufstein, Austria. I’d dabbled in the sport of luge on a small track in St. Saveur, Quebec, and had decided that the obvious next step was to sample the larger runs of Europe.

So, much to my parent’s consternation, off I went in quest of speed and glory. It’s been downhill ever since and much to everyone’s surprise, as well as my own, I am still somewhat sound in mind and body. . .

By now I assume you understand that a luge is a sled. It’s often mistaken for a throat lozenge, an extinct species, a tobaggan, or a rare tropical disease.

In fact, it’s one of four competitive sleds used in international competition — the other three are bobsled, naturbahn, and skeleton/cresta. A luge weighs up to 22 kilograms for the singles event, and 24 kilograms for doubles. It measures 48 x 150 centimetres. The maximum width between the steel runners cannot exceed 45 centimetres and a mechanical steering or braking apparatus is not allowed. There is a seat on which the athlete lays on his/her back, feet forward. A strap, which is attached to the front of the runners, may or may not be used for steering. Most sleds are made by hand in a mammoth old barn in Austria and cost approximately $600-700.

Most national teams purchase the Austrian-made sleds and modify them to suit their individual requirements. The East Germans and Italians construct their own.

What does one do with a $600 pile of wood, steel, and fibreglass? One tries to steer it down a twisting iced track approximately 1,000 to 1,200 metres long at speeds of up to 100-120 km/hr. And how do you steer? It certainly helps if you keep your eyes open! In addition, however, there are basically three methods: leg pressure against the side of the runner; shoulder pressure on the back of the runners assisted by turning the head in the desired direction: and pulling on the rein.

Why would a person want to do such a strange thing as luge? Some attribute participation in the sport to a premature death wish. Other suggest insanity. I regard it as normal behaviour — although I admit it isn’t everyone’s ultimate ambition. I enjoy speed sports and I intend to ride some type of sled until my body no longer cooperates.

Travelling with a luge is a challenge. Just carrying the sled onto trains, boats, and planes often leads to incredible situations. And it certainly is a great conversation piece! Often I park my luge in the middle of a terminal and retreat a few feet away to watch the reactions of people who encounter this strange-looking object. The comments range from, “I wonder where the dogs are,” to “Hey, I used to have one of those.”

Little do they know that luge has been on the Olympic program since 1964, and that world championships are held every year on one of 16 natural or artificial tracks. There is a singles event for men and women and a doubles event for men.

The latest addition to the list of refrigerated tracks is in Lake Placid, New York. The $4.5 million facility has been built for the 1980 Winter Olympic Games and is entirely separate from the bobsled run.

This is a dream come true for North American lugers. No longer will we have to battle with the bobsledders to use their track or vie for training time on European runs. The advent of this facility has quadrupled North American participation in the sport this year and I expect the future growth rate will be tremendous.

Luge first appeared in Canada in 1965 when a small natural piste was built at St. Sauveur. Since then, mini-runs have appeared in various locations in Ontario and Quebec. The newest is in Etobicoke, Ontario. The 750 foot multi-purpose natural track was bulldozed out of a small ski hill made from industrial waste, at a cost of close to $15,000. This run has been the most successful to date, with two of Canada’s best-ever male lugers emerging from the Etobicoke club program.

What is the future of the sport in Canada?

The potential is great. We certainly have the climate and the talent. The missing ingredient is facilities. Construction across the country of economical runs similar to that in Etobicoke would provide a feeding system for the Olympic facility at Lake Placid. My dream is to one day see as many people with sleds as with hockey sticks.

I was once asked if luging was the most exciting thing I had ever done. The reply was negative. But it definitely is one of the most exciting things I’ve experienced. I hope some day a great many Canadians will share my sentiments.

And what is it really like? Well, a good ride is comparable to tasting the best champagne. A bad ride is as rough as a cheap wine hang-over.

Speaking of wine — I’d like to invite you all to join the Baffin Island Dogsled and Rodelmannschaft (German for luge team). Becoming a member is a very simple matter. All you have to do is buy a beer for the president of the club. Since this person wishes to remain anonymous, you may buy me, the second vice-president, a beer in proxy, and I promise to pass on the membership dues.

By now you’re asking yourself, “Why should I join this club?” You’ll join if you’d like to attend the best party of 1980, scheduled for the end of the 1980 Winter Olympic Games.

The club has an account in a Swiss bank off the Bahnhofstrasse in Zurich, with a deposit of the grand amount of $80. These monies have been acquired via Grey Cup lotteries and other devious means. The account will be closed after the Games, with the funds used to subsidize the party. Memberships will be gratefully accepted c/o Champion.

Win or Luge, I hope to see you there!

Mary Jane Bowie was a member of the 1976 Olympic team and has been on the Canadian Luge team for six years. For the past two years, she has been a technical assistant with the Game Plan Technical Unit.

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