SOCHI, Russia, Feb. 14, 2014 – When racing blindly down the mountain at 80 miles per hour, trust and teamwork are crucial for two soldier-athletes who attribute their resilience in the sport of luge to military training.
In luge doubles, the athlete in contact with the small sled is almost completely covered by his partner and has limited visibility of the course, said Sgt. Preston Griffall of the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program. The two-time Olympian lies flat on his back on the sled while Sgt. Matt Mortensen, situated directly atop Griffall, helps to steer the sled by signaling upcoming curves via body movements.
"You have to become one on the sled," Griffall said. "You have to know how your teammate is going to react -- or not react -- to a particular problem."
Griffall and Mortensen discussed teamwork and Army training during a Team USA Olympic luge doubles news conference earlier this week. They said military training helped them conquer the "mental challenges" of luge.
Luge is considered one of the most dangerous Olympic sports, because, even in singles competition, athletes lie on their backs with eyes pointed skyward. At the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver, British Columbia, an athlete died from an accident during luge training. Nodar Kumaritashvili of the republic of Georgia lost control of his sled in a turn near the finish line, flew over the track wall and hit a steel pole.
The 16 curves of Sanki Sliding Center here include a "switchback hairpin bend" near the top of the luge course that architects said was designed to send sleds into a "rapid ricochet" in Turn 5. The next two turns combine to form an "S-shaped snake" known as "the labyrinth."
Although the new track has three uphill turns to slow the sleds, many of the luge competitors -- including Griffall and Mortensen -- encountered problems skidding out of Turn 5. In the second heat of doubles competition, they skidded after bumping the wall exiting Turn 5. The miscue was enough to drop them into 14th place with a combined time of 1 minute, 41.703 seconds.
"The second run was quite the wild ride," Griffall said. "There were a lot of problems. This track rewards perfection. We did not have perfection."
Luge doubles is an extremely challenging sport. Griffall explained that most luge athletes begin by competing in singles, and some progress to doubles.
"Doubles, itself, takes a lot of experience and a lot of working together," said Griffall, 29, of Salt Lake City.
He and Mortensen have been working together for eight years. Both have been members of the national luge team since 2005.
"I do most of the driving," said Mortensen, who is positioned on top. "Since I can see, I have more control." Yet, he admits that his partner is instrumental in turning the sled.
"The bottom guy is the one in contact with the sled," said Mortensen, 28, of Huntington Station, N.Y. "I don't have any direct feeling with the sled. Preston is really responsible for making sure he is right with his body weight for the curves. He'll roll back and straighten the sled out every corner."
Doubles is also more exhilarating because there's a teammate to share the challenges and achievements, said Mortensen. "It feels like you're accomplishing so much more."
Luge doubles is a mental challenge, much like the Army's basic combat training, Griffall said.
"Going through basic training is probably 95 percent mental," Griffall said, explaining that it's a mental challenge to stay focused when sometimes training from 4 a.m. to midnight. He added that it takes discipline and determination to battle on without much sleep.
In luge, the start is all physical," Griffall said, "but once you lay down on the sled and you're navigating the sled down the track, it becomes all mental. You have to be extremely focused and stay on your game, because it's fast.
"Everything is happening in the blink of an eye."
Mortensen said the communication skills he learned in the Army also help him excel at luge.
The communication is challenging, Mortensen said, because on the track verbal communication is nearly impossible because of wind noise. There's no time for talking, even if words could be heard. Communication must be made by subtle movements, he stressed, such as a tilt of the head.
The soldiers said being part of the Army and National Guard has been helpful in developing resilience, as well. That resilience has helped them bounce back after disappointing races, such as their 14th-place Olympic finish on Feb. 12, to focus on future challenges.