U.S. luge racers surged to the podium four years ago in Japan at the Nagano Winter Games to claim the first U.S. Olympic medals in the sport. Now they are aiming to claim more medals in Salt Lake City. VOA's Jim Stevenson has this profile on the U.S. luge doubles team of 28-year-old Brian Martin and 31-year-old Mark Grimmette.
U.S. luge racers historically have not posed much threat to those from Europe. But 34 years of Olympic frustration ended in 1998, when the United States captured the silver and bronze medals in the doubles event. Brian Martin and Mark Grimmette placed just behind the American pair of Gordy Sheer and Chris Thorpe. Grimmette says he and Martin made great strides from their early days to reach the podium.
"We were not much. We were kind of the also-rans. We were a little better than people running to the side of the track to watch us crash," says Grimmette. "But we have steadily made gains. It is amazing to watch just how much this team has improved."
Brian Martin, who got his first taste of luge racing in 1988 at age 14, says he and Grimmette will have to be in top form if they are to win a medal at the Salt Lake Games.
"Last season was not that great," says Martin. "It is a hard sport and sometimes you make the wrong call. We were not sliding with a lot of confidence last year. So much of the game is mental and sometimes you have trouble finding the mental edge. When you are winning, it is easy to win. And when you are not, it is so much harder to get there."
Martin says the winning combination is a constant process.
"We spend 24 hours a day, seven days a week together for six months of the year. And we train alongside each other the other six months of the year. So if you were not friends, you would be nowhere. You have to get along. You have to be able to communicate. You have to know that you can trust that other person," he explains.
Luge has the reputation of being one of the most dangerous sports in the Winter Olympics. Trust is very important in doubles luge considering the racers are hurtling down the icy track together at speeds in excess of 125-kilometers-per-hour. Martin says split-second reactions are crucial.
"There is a lot more that can happen on a doubles sled because you have got two people. And so you kind of have to be able to read what the other person is doing, know how they are going to react in every situation and react the same way so that you are pulling on the same end of the [steering] rope," he explains. "If I am doing something opposite of Mark, it is going to be big problems."
Over the years, Brian Martin says he and Mark Grimmette have gained another winning element in addition to trust.
"When I go into a race, I try to go in with the confidence of knowing that I have done everything that I can to prepare for that race," Martin says. "That is one of the keys, is having that confidence. I am not really thinking about, of some of the troubles maybe that I have in training or anything like that. I am going with the instincts that I have trained myself to have to slide fast. The confidence is the important part to racing."
Martin and Grimmette teamed in 1996 and won a bronze medal that year in their first World Cup race in Lillehammer, Norway. They have gone on to become the most successful American pair in luge World Cup racing. The duo has also captured the bronze medal at the past two World Championships. Despite their experience, Martin says an intangible quality is needed to race well.
"The more I know about luge the less I understand. That is kind of the running joke," he laughs. "And you can be sliding technically perfect lines, but you are just not fast. You are not relaxed enough. You are not letting the sled run enough. You are kind of fighting your way down. It sounds a little odd that makes the difference, but that is what makes the difference. If you set the sled down and know you are going to win, you have got a better shot than if you go up there thinking ' I have to win this one.' "
At the Salt Lake City Olympics, Mark Grimmette says the competition will be tough.
"It is us [the United States] and the Germans. We are really duking it out," says Grimmette. " The Austrians are also very strong and there are very strong Italians as well. So, those are the four powerhouses and everybody is going to be scratching and kicking and biting for the top of the podium."
Martin says some of the pressure to win has been eased with the results four years ago at the Nagano games, and he is looking forward to competing in Salt Lake City.
"We just had not done it [won a medal] in the Olympics. To now have done it, maybe some of that pressure has been released," says Martin. "I am really looking forward to an Olympics at home. And I think it is going to be great because of the fans and how excited everybody will be."
And the American fans will be even more excited if Brian Martin and Mark Grimmette can reach the podium again.