- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 22, 2004

CARROLL VALLEY, Pa. — Sliding down a packed-snow race course yesterday at Liberty Mountain Resort evoked memories of winter afternoons sledding down unplowed streets on my Speedaway — oblivious to all but the speed of metal runners on snow and the exhilaration of slamming into and up a snowbank at the bottom of the hill.

Much of that childhood experience came flooding back during the Verizon Luge Challenge at the southern Pennsylvania ski area. The Luge Challenge visits ski areas in the Northeast, bringing the sport of luge to anyone willing to put on a helmet and slide down a specially prepared course.

The emphasis is on fun and safety. The orange plastic sliders used in the Challenge are not the metal sleds Olympic athletes maneuver down steep-sided ice troughs at speeds up to 80 mph. The plastic sleds don’t reach the speeds of their world-class cousins, but there is a great deal of flexibility and turning ability that make them perform much like regular luge sleds.

The Luge Challenge continues today at Liberty with noncompetitive rides all day. This afternoon competitions will be held on the race course and prizes awarded to the more adventuresome. There is no charge for participating, and a lift ticket is not needed to access the luge course.

“This is great for us,” said Liberty marketing coordinator Anne Weimer. “There are so many people in the D.C. and Baltimore metro areas that may not be interested in traditional winter sports — skiing, snowboarding — but they might want to try something new. They’re looking for fun on a winter day. We hope to get people here and see the mountain and maybe decide to try something else.”

For members of USA Luge, America’s team that competes on the World Cup circuit and in the Olympics, the Luge Challenge is another way to raise awareness of the sport and bring it to people who might never have a chance to experience it. The Challenge is also an extension of the team’s recruiting efforts and helps to attract young people to the sport and possibly spots on the team.

In the summer, team members canvass the country with their Verizon-USA Luge Slider Search looking for potential team members. Specially designed sleds, with wheels, are used to navigate a street course, and youngsters who show promise are invited to a camp in Lake Placid, N.Y., where they are exposed to luge on its natural ice setting. The team looks at 1,000 children each year, and about 75 get invited.

“About 90 percent of present team members come from the Slider program,” said Mark Grimmette, a three-time Olympian with two medals. Grimmette, 33, is one of the last team members to not have participated in the Slider Search program, which began in 1985 when Verizon became the luge team’s sponsor.

Verizon’s support of the team is evident from the 306 international medals the team has won since 1994.

Grimmette, from Michigan, indicated the most important attribute an athlete needs to succeed in luge is desire. “We look for coordination and some natural ability,” he said. “But most of us on the team are there because of passion — our love of the sport.”

Courtney Zablocki, originally from Illinois, came to luge as an 11-year-old who attended a Slider Search event “on a weekend whim. “They invited me to go to Lake Placid, and I’ve been doing it ever since,” said Zablocki, now 22. She has been on the national team for six years and finished 13th at the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002.

“In the summer, with the Slider Search, I’ve seen a lot more girls trying it and getting involved,” she said.

The sport is dominated by Europeans, especially the Germans, but Grimmette has seen a rise in awareness, if not popularity, of luge in the United States. “The Olympics did a lot to raise the level,” he said. “I’ve seen the coverage get a lot better.”

Said Jean Walker, manager of sponsorship for Verizon: “The 2002 Olympics were very important for the sport. The team did so well. They won about a third of all medals for the United States, and since then we’ve had some great stories from all the athletes.”

As luge continues to gain in popularity, and with another Winter Olympics looming in 2006, will there soon be luge courses at ski areas?

“You never know,” Weimer said. “If it proves popular, we would certainly look at it. We’re always looking at new things. Look at our tubing park. Five years ago it was nothing. Now its a big attraction.”

Looking into the future, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that some city kid’s sledding memories will be formed not on the hills and parks in town but on a luge course at a ski resort.

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