Sledding on thin ice: Vermonter Grace Weinberg Competes for 2022 Olympics

by Hannah Johnson

At age 11, Grace Weinberg fell in love with the adrenalin and excitement of luging. Now at almost 19-years-old, she has been following her dreams and is in her last year as a member of the U.S Junior National Luge Team. “Luge is a sport, similar to bobsled in the sense that we use the same track as them in the winter time. However, luge is a much faster, much more difficult sport to master. We call it an experience based sport because it is very technical and it’s very quick and you have to have a lot of experience on different tracks to become the best in the world.”

Luge consists of one or two people lying face up and feet first while sliding down an icy track. They rely on reflexes for steering, and have no protection if they make an error. This sport was developed in Switzerland. These do not have breaks so it is up to the athlete to control the 50-pound sled.

“It’s really difficult to get down the track fast and safely. So, for luge, we really need to have a fast and explosive technical start. The start only lasts for four to six seconds but all the time that you save at the top can be a lot more time added up at the bottom of the track because the tracks are up to a mile long. So, the faster you are at the start, it helps build more momentum for down the track. Aerodynamics are also a part of this sport because we need to be able to carry that speed down the hill and it’s critical that we have total control of every muscle in our body because the slightest mistake that we make can make a huge impact.”

Weinberg has traveled with the junior national team for the last four years and that team consists of the best athletes in the nation who are between the ages of 15 and 20 years old. This will be her last year competing in the junior circuit and from here she will move on to be a full-time athlete for the senior national team and in pursuit of the 2022 Olympics in Beijing.

“I kind of tell people that I got into this sport on accident. I had moved to Vermont back in 2008, I moved from Illinois, and I was visiting with my family in Lake Placid one summer, just as tourists, and we came to do the bobsled rides. In the summertime, they take tourists down the track. There’s no ice on the track but they have a system where they can push bobsleds. I went to it that day with my family, I was young, I was only ten at the time and they actually happened to be closed that day so it was a bummer. We were going to go back to our hotel and do other touristy things and then they said, ‘well there’s a luge try-out tomorrow for kids ages nine to 13’. I had no idea what luge was so I went back to my hotel room and my mom and my dad and I looked at YouTube videos and said alright I guess this is what I’m getting into.”

Weinberg attended the “slider search” the next day which is a recruitment program that travels the country looking for athletes that have potential. They take the luge sleds that are used in the winter time, take the steel runners off the bottom, and attach rubber wheels to them. They then push the young athletes down a hill and teach them how to steer. The program is looking to see what the young kids body control is like while also maneuvering through a set of cones. “It’s really also to see how brave you are if your able to overcome that fear sliding down a hill at quick speeds.” She was the youngest one there.

Just a couple months later, Weinberg was invited to stay at the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, NY for five days. “That was really huge at the time to come to a building where I’m only a ten-year-old almost 11-year-old girl at the time, walking down the halls of Olympians. It was crazy.” During the five-day camp, she was doing luge on the real track, with the real sleds, working with real coaches. After the camp, she continued to train and continued to make the cuts.

Most tracks are shared by athletes from luge, bobsled and skeleton. Weinberg has traveled to two different tracks in America, one in Lake Placid and one in Utah, two tracks in Canada, as well as tracks in Germany, Austria, Norway and more. She attended Killington Mountain School in Vermont and visits her family in Pittsfield when she isn’t training but as of right now currently lives full time at the Olympic Training Center. She spends November through December traveling abroad in Europe. She will go home for Christmas and then spend four more weeks traveling and competing.

She trains five days a week, spending three of those five in a starting facility. “Three refrigerated ramps that eventually go up hill and that’s what we use in the summer time to practice.” The start is such a critical part to the entire luge run. She works on different techniques and works on her speed. She has spikes on the ends of her fingertips and that is how she is able to dig her fingers into the ice and propel herself forward. She spends hours in the start facility every week just trying to drop her start time by hundredths of a second. The other two days are spent doing a lot of grip, wrist, neck, and core strength. She also does Olympic weight training and a small bit of cardio.

Weinberg has reached a top speed of 83.6 miles per hour (mph) at the track in Whistler, Canada where the 2010 Olympics were held. It varies from track to track. On average, she travels at speeds between 65 and 75 mph. For four years in a row, she has been the silver medalist at the Junior National Championship . “It’s still crazy that I’m the second fastest athlete under 20 in the nation. It’s so very cool.” Last year she was top 15 in the world for athletes under 20 and she was also the silver medalist at the Junior World Championship for the team relay event.

“I still get butterflies at the handles and it’s taken my mom a while to get used to watching me, she gets really nervous. But you have control of the sled. You have to have good core strength and neck strength and you have to know the track inside and out. You have to know how the curves are built and you need to know where you need to steer to cut the ice at the right pressure. What I mean by pressure is when you are going down the track and your hitting speeds of 60, 70, 80 mph the sled naturally wants to take its own line and wants to go up and down on the curves. So, our goal is at those pressure points, to cut the ice so that we are able to find the fastest line and the shortest line down the track.”

Thankfully, Weinberg hasn’t been in any bad crashes but she has witnessed some pretty bad ones. They are a reminder that if you do not know what you’re doing, things can get ugly.

“Luge is almost like a dance. There’s a flow to it and there’s a rhythm and if you don’t have the rhythm then you won’t succeed and you’ll crash…it doesn’t always hurt to get in a luge crash. I have witnessed, and I have been fortunate enough, Ill knock on wood, that I have not been in any serious luge crashes that has kept me out of sliding for too long. I’ve had a couple concussions but it’s almost pretty common when you get into this sport. But I have witnessed some pretty crazy things happen to some teammates. But you learn how to crash the right way and save yourself from getting hurt.”

When asked what her favorite part of the sport was, Weinberg knew right away. “The adrenalin for sure. It’s a crazy feeling when you stand up after a luge run and you’re out of breath. Luge for sure is definitely physically demanding at the start but only for a few seconds.  So, it’s the thrill of holding on and navigating your way down the track and when you come up you feel like you have to catch your breath. You know that the adrenalin is pumping and it’s the coolest feeling. It’s like coming off of a roller-coaster and you just want to do it again and again.”

Weinberg is currently an online student at The University of Vermont while on the road. “I absolutely want to become an Olympic athlete. That is my top dream and I am shooting for 2022 and right now out of all of the luge athletes in the nation I am seeded seventh and they take the top three to the Olympics. So, I think in the next four and a half years I will have been able to get enough experience under my belt to compete with the top athletes in the nation and I really see myself going to the Olympics.” Other than luge, she is interested in becoming a physical therapist.

She is currently training with the senior national team testing those waters while still competing with the junior team. The senior team is comprised of the best luge athletes in the nation.