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From Plastic Saucers to 30 mph:

Luging in Muskegon

By Jim DuFresne

In a single afternoon, I went from being a sledder to a slider (that’s what we luge athletes call ourselves).

Jim DuFresne

I went from plastic saucers, Flexible Flyers, and toboggans to a luge. I went from sliding down any snowy hill to a wooden track with high walls, an iced surface and wicked turns. I went from obscurity to the Olympics.

Well, not quite, but I’m headed in that direction. That’s because jumping on a sled is for kids. The luge is for Olympians … and those of us who become fascinated with the sport every four years during the Winter Games.

The transition from a sled to a luge was so easy I don’t know why I waited so long.

Within a half hour of arriving at the Muskegon Luge Adventure Sports Park at Muskegon State Park, I was on a luge, pointed feet first for the bottom of a winding track.

“It’s one of those sports you learn more by doing than by talking about it,” my Muskegon Luge Club instructor said. “So we just let people slide.”

Luging Muskegon State Park Winter Sports Complex.

Introduced in the Olympics in 1964, the luge is a race against the clock on small single or two-person sleds. The top sliders in the world can reach speeds above 80 mph while lying on their back, steering the sled with only subtle leg and shoulder pressure.

“How fast do you think I was going?” I asked my instructor excitedly after completing my first run.

“Well, you know, this track is like our bunny hill.”

That’s the most amazing thing about the complex; there’s not one but two luge tracks here.

The upper track is the main run, a 550-foot-long chute with seven turns. Although nowhere near the caliber of the track for the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics (4,316 feet, 17 turns), it’s still one of only a handful in the country.

The lower track is 300 feet long with only two turns and not nearly as steep. It’s much more forgiving and is why the learn-to-luge program is so popular.

For a set fee, you get a helmet and sled, 15 minutes of coaching, and as many runs down the track as you want.

You’re told that the runners of a luge are called “cufins,” and they are connected by a pair of metal bands called “bridges. You steer by working the bridges, the front one with the side of your legs exerting pressure on the cufins, the rear by moving your shoulders and head.

Then on your first trip down, you realize that the sled is incredibly responsive. The key to going fast is to be as aerodynamic as possible; feet extended and pointed downhill, arms tight against the body, head back …

“How do you steer if your head is back and you’re looking up?” I asked.

“By peeking between your feet,” my instructor said, “and watching the wall.”

Ah, that wall. The luge is a remarkably safe sport, but that wall is still flying past you.

Click on the photo to watch a YouTube video of luging at the Muskegon Luge Adventure Sports Park.

On my second run down, the wall was only inches away, threatening to shred my $200 Gore-Tex parka before I could nudge the sled back to the center of the track. The wall is why they recommend beginners wear old clothes, elbow pads, and high-top tennis shoes.

Once you get beyond that fear of the wall, you discover that the luge is all about speed and anticipation.

You know there are two turns on the lower track, so you look away as you approach the first, roll slightly on that outside shoulder, and the sled remains in the middle of the track. You’re not even through the turn when you begin positioning the sled for the second one with a touch of the leg here and a little pressure there.

“The luge requires a relaxed focus of concentration to do well,” one luger told me at the bottom of the track. “There is something of a Zen to this sport.”

Some people never reach that enlightened state while zipping 20 or 30 mph down the track. And some, but not me, take to it naturally the first day they try it.

Open luge at Muskegon Luge Adventure Sports Park is 6:30-9 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Saturday, and 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday. “Learn to Luge” is $35 on Wednesday and Thursday and $65 on the weekends for instructions, equipment, and slide time.

For more information, call (877) 879-5843 or go to the Muskegon Luge Adventure Sports Park website.

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