Meet The Littlest Luger

Name: Grace Weinberg Age: 17 Hometown: Pittsfield, Vt.
Family: Father, Andy; Mother, Sloan; Sister, Jade Sports: Luge, swimming, field hockey, soccer.

Grace Weinberg discovered the fastest sport on ice by accident at age 11. Since then, she has made the Junior National team, recorded top finishes in World Cup races and earned a silver in the 2016 Junior World Championship Relay.

Weinberg grew up in Pitts eld with a family of athletes. Her father, Andy Weinberg, helped grow the Spartan and Death Races and is the founder of the Endurance Society. Her mother is a former competitive cheerleader. Her younger sister Jade runs on the Rutland High School cross country team.

To accommodate her training and traveling, Weinberg completed her high school at the Killington Mountain School in Killington, Vt. After graduating from the KMS a year early this past June, she’s focusing on luge while living and training at the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid.

VS: How did you get into luge?

GW: I first got started in luge in 2010 in a slider search, which is how most of the people in the sport get exposed to it. It’s a program that goes around America in a U-Haul trailer with a concrete ramp on the back. In the summer the coaches ride to big cities and they let kids between the ages of 11 and 13 try it.

If they see that you have potential, they invite you back to Lake Placid, N.Y. to the Olympic Training Center and you get to try it on ice for the first time. I was actually in Plattsburgh on a family vacation and we went to the bobsled ride in Lake Placid.

They were closed and the guy working there said they were having slider search tryouts in Plattsburgh. We had to YouTube it the night before in our hotel room. I wasn’t even sure it was a tryout, but I had that adrenaline rush.

VS: Is it easier or harder to learn the sport when you are that young?
GW: When I tried out in Plattsburgh, N.Y. I was 11, which is the lower end of the spectrum.

Most kids are 13. It was a pretty big advantage for me because when you’re young and your body hasn’t developed, it’s easier to learn because you can grow into the sled. It’s an experience-based sport, so the more experience you have the better.

VS: What is it about luge that speaks to you? Why do you love this sport?

GW: Luge is like nothing else I’ve done. We lugers say that by the end of the season it’s really hard to give us an adrenaline rush. At the top of the track, sitting at the handles, I get these butterflies in my stomach. At the bottom of the track, I’m out of breath and it’s because of that pumping adrenaline. It’s almost like a roller coaster, but there’s no brake and it’s exhilarating.

VS: How fast are you traveling?

GW: The fastest speed I’ve ever gone was 82.4 miles per hour and that was in Whistler, Canada. You have to be very focused in luge and it’s easy to let your adrenaline and nerves get the best of you. That’s why it takes a lot of experience to get used to that.

In my mental preparation for the race, I visualize the track. I picture it in a way that I can see the curves and where I need to steer. I actually don’t think about the line, I think about keeping my shoulders back on the sled and absorbing the bumps. I try to clear my mind, but there’s an incredible amount of focus required. It’s not just laying down on the sled and hoping you make it.

VS: How do you handle the risks associated with the sport?

GW: There are de nitely risks and luge is the fastest sport on ice: you can’t just put anyone on the sled. We take a lot of risks and with that comes a lot of focus, mental preparation and understanding the track. We walk the track and watch people slide on the ice before our runs. It takes a lot of skill and preparation to drive a sled properly. We’ve all had bad crashes and we’ve all hit walls. I hit a wall yesterday. You live and you learn.

VS:. What kind training do you do at the Olympic Center in Lake Placid?

GW: I’ve been living at the Olympic Training Center full time since June. I’m one of only three junior athletes living here so I’ve been training with the senior national team. In the summertime we focus on training our fast-twitch muscles and training our bodies to be very explosive because one of the most important things about our sport is being very strong and fast at the start.

The start is between three and six seconds long but a little time at the top might cost you a lot of time at the bottom

Luckily, in Lake Placid we have an indoor start facility. It’s refrigerated all year and has three different start ramps to practice on. We also do a lot of power lifting, along with neck and core exercises. I like to think I started using my fast-twitch muscles in competitive swimming and then brought them to luge start handles.

VS: What kinds of insight or tips have more senior members of the national team been able to give you?

GW: Some of the top athletes have 10 to 15 years of experience so they o er a lot of good insights. I was a little intimidated moving in this summer, knowing that I would have to train alongside them. These are my future competitors, but they o er such good advice and they don’t treat us like junior athletes. They also give us a lot of help with things like living away from our parents for the first time. They’re inspiring and they let us know that they’re there for us.

VS: You just got back from Norway. How was that?

GW: Just a couple weeks ago, our coaches asked us if we would like to take a pre- season training trip with the rest of the team to Norway. That was my first time going anywhere with the senior national team and it was a great honor to be with their coaches and be in that atmosphere of a higher level of training and racing. We were in Lillehammer, which is where the 1994 Winter Olympic Games were held. This is a preseason trip that a lot of athletes take because the ice is known for being really quick and smooth at the start. We hadn’t been on ice since March. Luckily, the conditions were great and we were able to post record times on the track. All the tracks are different lengths and heights, but the Lillehammer track has the steepest women’s start. The first timing guide is three yards down the ramp and the next timing eye is going into the first curve.

Our hard work shows at the start and that’s the only part where you have control of your speed and you can accelerate yourself.

The highlight was competing in the Lillehammer Cup in early October. There were only a handful of teams there from USA, Austria, Italy and Poland and we were missing the really dominant teams like Germany, Russia and Latvia. But we were able to get back to that racing atmosphere and my high point was posting the fastest start time in the race.

That was exciting because that’s what I’ve been working on all summer.

VS: What are some of your goals for the coming season?

GW: This will hopefully be my last year as a junior. The program technically goes until you’re 20 years old, but my goal is to start being with the seniors at least part time by the next season.

This season I’m hoping to get some top- three finishes in my World Cup races which start late October. My best finishes were tenth place last year. I’m trying to get some personal bests and beat all my times from last season. I’m feeling stronger, mentally more prepared and ready to take it on.

VS: Are you thinking about the Olympics?

GW: Absolutely. I’m trying to prepare myself for the 2018 games. They’re within my reach. I’m in the top six in the nation and they take the top three. Anything could happen in the next year. If I don’t qualify for South Korea, I’ll only be 20 and in that case I’ll go for the 2022 games.

VS: The highest the U.S. has placed at the Olympics was in Sochi when Erin Hamilton won bronze. What do you think it will take for the U.S. to stand at the top of the podium?

GW: The Americans are finally catching up with sled technology and we’re getting faster each year. We’ve shown that we have what it takes to make it to the podium and even the top. Anything can happen on a race day.

Emma Cotton

Emma moved to the Green Mountain State a year ago, but has felt at home here for 20. Find her exploring the mountains when she's not posted up with a good book.