85 mph. On a sled. Feet first. Inches above a track made of solid ice without protective gear—except a helmet. In case your stomach hasn’t sunk to your toes yet, imagine zooming down the slippery 3,200+ foot course unable to see where exactly you’re going, just “feeling” it. Gulp. Welcome to the dangerous, yet thrilling world of luge. The sport, which made its Olympic debut in 1964, may sound chilling to most but is nothing short of an adrenaline-pumping ride for Team USA’s World Champion, Erin Hamlin. How does one start luging? Are those sleek ensembles even warm? We got the scoop and so much more. Read on and be sure to cast your USA Luge uniform and sled vote by August 24—that's right, you have a say in what look our athletes will sport for the Sochi 2014 Games.
How did you get into the luge? It’s kind of an obscure sport so it’s not really your normal I-did-it-in-school story. USA Luge does what’s called a “Slider Search” every summer. They go to a couple of random cities around the country and recruit kids. It’s the only way they can really get people into it. My dad had seen an ad for this program in his company newsletter and asked if I’d be interested. I was a gymnast at the time, so I was in that whole athletic mindset. I decided to go, pretty much on a whim, and as cliché as it sounds, the rest is history. I got pulled into the development program in 2000. It’s super competitive, so of course they tell you that only five kids out of the 400 are ever going to make it anywhere. I was like, “Alright, I definitely want to be one of those five.” I got hooked right away.
Did your gymnast background translate into the luge? I definitely think it benefited me as a 12-year-old. I remember being the only girl at my tryout who was able to do a pull-up! I think that real foundation of athleticism and core work, as well as flexibility and upper body strength, helped.
Tell us a little about your training now—we heard you’re quite the yogi! Yes, I do yoga as much as I can. Less than I would like to, but there are a few other types of training that are more important for me right now. We do a lot of weight training. On the track we really focus on our start, which is a really powerful explosive movement. So we do a lot of Olympic lifting, as well as other more sport-specific stuff like rowing movements; a lot of pull-up and core work like planking and weighted or body weight mid-section work.
Does yoga help you stay centered? I know one of my strengths is really being able to stay relaxed, and that’s a huge part of our sport. It helps the sled react better. Being able to stay relaxed and not get myself too worked up before races—I can really just chill out and not get too hyped up. [Yoga] just makes me more of a laid-back person in general, I think. If I do have a really bad race, I tend not to dwell on it for very long. I can learn from it and leave it behind quickly so it just helps me to move forward better.
Is luge as much a mental game as it is physical? A lot of times it’s more mental for us. Obviously the physical aspect is there all the time, but because when we’re actually sliding down a track we’re going 70 to 85 miles per hour, you have to be in a good mental place to keep everything together. There’s a certain point where no matter what your physical state is, if you’re a head case or you psyche yourself out, your strength isn’t really going to help you too much.
Let’s talk uniforms. Is the design/material important to keep you warm? How does this affect speed? They don’t keep us warm at all actually, which is a major bummer. But we're only outside for around two minutes, so it’s not terrible. They’re really based around aerodynamics. It’s huge for us. Being timed to the thousandth of a second, we’ll take anything we can get as an advantage. We do a lot of testing in low speed wind tunnels with different fabrics. I get probably 30 measurements of my body taken so the suit fits me tightly—so the air flows over it really well. We’re pretty excited this year to have this kind of contest so the public can have a little part in helping us look awesome at the Olympics. We’re super competitive, so we’re all trying to get our favorite ones picked. “The Racer” version is the best, the most patriotic. You should all vote for that one!
We have to ask—what’s it like to go down the track at such a high speed? It’s a lot of fun; a huge adrenaline rush. It’s like a roller coaster, the major difference being I’m completely in control. On every track there’s an ideal line, imaginary obviously, but it’s the fastest way from top to bottom. It’s a lot of physics and stuff, but we’re trying to be within an inch of that line the whole way down. We can steer with our legs, our shoulders and we have small handles we steer with as well, and shifting our body weight, while also trying to stay completely relaxed (because it’s faster) and not looking. So there’s a lot more going on than meets the eye. You know you want to be kind of on the edge of being in control and out of control because the less steering you’re doing, the faster you’re going. It’s kind of like the whole pizza-French fry with skiing. Your brain kind of just starts to react at that speed naturally. So when I pull off the handles, I’m going to lay down, try to be as relaxed as possible and turn my brain off to let the natural reaction happen.
What is the most surprising thing about your sport? Our diets are different from other athletes. It’s physics—heavier things go downhill faster. I picked a good sport - I don’t have to diet at all! Obviously we want it to be good weight. I eat a lot of lean proteins, basically putting on as much good muscle mass as possible. I supplement a lot with whey protein shakes and chicken breasts. Nonfat Greek yogurt is a staple in my diet, too.
Favorite pump-up song on your workout playlist right now? I’ve been listening to a lot of Macklemore!
For more information about Erin, the luge and how you can help decide the team’s Valiant Entertainment race suit/helmet and Dow-engineered sled design, visit the USA Luge website by August 23.
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