It is rather bittersweet as I write this blog post. My son, AJ who has been experiencing, rejoicing and loving luge since the age of 12, is retiring at the age of 33. As a youngster, he loved uniforms, and as he grew older, one uniform was replaced by another! Soccer, Baseball, Football, Civil Air Patrol and finally luge.
He now aspires to become a commercial pilot ( another uniform!), and flew solo when he was 16 at an Embry Riddle Aeronautical University summer camp and the Mach 11 Space Camp . He has flown flight simulators with the British Military, at home, and knows so much about flight and aeronautics, he is a natural . He has always loved speed, was always shy and very quiet, and so I would send him to Space Camp in Alabama when he was young (12) paying the airline to chaperone him on the flight. I thought by his wanting to do something he loved, would help him to express himself. Being in the Civil Air Patrol, also brought him closer to his love of flying. He won a scholarship to Space camp for a week, and was also Sergeant of the Year for the Civil Air Patrol when he was 14.
On another level, AJ loves speed. When I signed him up for what I thought would be just a fun half day luge program in Queens, ( children sliding down a ramp from a truck with hay bales on the curbside ), I saw it as a way to spend the morning with his brother and friends, and for $20 each, they all had a t-shirt too! I never thought he would be invited to a luge screening camp in Lake Placid! Oh my!
AJ was just 14 when he became the fastest luge athlete for athletes under the age of 16. Duncan Kennedy (a three time Olympian and coach) had seen the promise in AJ, and elevated him from one luge level to another, and I think thus upsetting the powers that be! He was not invited to join the team participating in the World Cup International level, and was told to be Number One again. He competed well but never Number One again as his contemporaries were able to advance their training on a World Cup level on different tracks. Realizing that the US would be dropping him once he turned 18, I decided to make AJ a dual citizen with Great Britain (I am British), and Duncan (who narrated the Luge Olympics for NBC in Korea this year and other Olympics), suggested he contact Great Britain to recommend AJ be on their team. He/we did, and AJ was accepted.
Great Britain was never known for winter events, and so we would pay anywhere from $12000 – $25000 a year (non of it tax deductible -ha!) to help fund his sport. At that time, there was partial funding which was great but not enough. Never enough, especially when the Germans spend over 40 Million Euros on their training program. Money brings forth results. Luge is revered in Germany. SO funny but I can recall a German top slider came to stay with us for a few days; a really nice young man, and before he left, he left us a thank you gift. Several autographed postcards. THAT is the significance of German luge. He was a celebrity!
A.J. has been cited as having the fastest finish as a Brit in a World Cup Race. He came in 6th place in Calgary 2009 . HOWEVER, what isn’t noted is the fact that the reason he came in 6th was that he had borrowed a TRAINING sled from the Canadians! Not a competition sled but a training sled. AJ only has one sled! He would ordinarily finish in 20th, 27th place finishes which was great…but never 6th.. That finish made it quite obvious that you can have the talent, but you also need the equipment in order to succeed.
AJ came in 16th in Turin .. He was faster than 2 American athletes who he had been bypassed for, and the American Tony Benshof, who beat him, had those extra 10 years experience under his belt also. USA asked him to return but how could he? He was/is always honorable. He stayed with Great Britain. They had allowed him to compete even though the funding was not there.
AJ trained for another 4 years, again on a limited basis with no financed summer/fall training, etc. He went to Whistler to train in the fall after no financed summer training . The track there was very dangerous. He had been training with the Canadians during the season, and the coach, Wolfgang Staudinger, in trying to help him with a little extra track time to make up for the lack thereof, offered him a few extra runs on the track. After going down the track more than usual, he was very tired, and in that split second, he crashed. Athletes slide maybe 2-3 times a day. It is grueling, facing G forces, and requires every muscle and total attention. AJ was sliding down 7 times that day trying to make up on the 100+ runs the other athletes had already on the track, that he had missed. This was in October before the Olympics, and his hip was dislocated, he had nerve damage. He was told by a doctor, it would take him 3 years to walk properly again. Are you kidding? A.J. had places to go. Interestingly, as fate would have it, this was days before he learned that he had been awarded a generous donation for a new sled from film producer and sports enthusiast, Russ Malkin. After the extensive physical therapy, AJ returned to the sport to both qualify for the Olympics, and he was actually finishing in the top 10 during practice, but after the crash and death of a young athlete Nodar Kumaritashvili , the track was shortened, and the starts became more important, which really helped the Germans . AJ did not have the reach after his accident, his starts were slower, and he always made up the time in speed and driving the sled. With a shortened track, it became a start competition in a sense. He came in 16th again which was wonderful, but that also meant no funding from Great Britain. He had required a top ten finish for funding. No one realized that what he had accomplished was wonderful.
Mark Armstrong (Brigadier, Retired) who has been great, was able to secure some funding, but only after a year out of the circuit, and then on a limited sliding and competing basis. We had to withdraw our support with a son in college, and so AJ was on his own. AJ had the same qualifications for Sochi and more so than he had in Whistler, but a manager ( who was a past Olympian himself ) decided AJ needed MORE qualifications than in Whistler which was not reasonable based on the fact he hadn’t been sliding more but far far less. Less training, less world cup races, less everything. Great Britain luge had requested in writing a 4 year commitment from AJ, which meant he could not pursue any other endeavor, just taking part time jobs during off season, but they weren’t able to give him their commitment for after those 4 years and same goals had been reached which was rather upsetting to me on many levels. Four years gone. I was not amused as they say.
At that point, we had begged AJ to quit the sport, but he has loved luge, the many International friends he has made, the joy of flying around the world (Japan, France, England, Norway, Russia, Italy, Canada, Germany, Austria, Latvia, Korea), and growing so much as a person. He has learned to speak in front of a classroom, he has been interviewed so many times and is now so relaxed, has commentated World cup races beautifully and he always comports himself brilliantly. It has been an education in itself. He has made life long friends in every country, has even been invited to luncheon with Her Royal Highness Princess Anne twice whilst at the Olympics! Wow! A life time experience. He met her for a third time yesterday at the Great Britain Headquarters in the Olympic village too. Princess Anne has always been supportive to all of the athletes.
With no singles funding, A.J. was asked to do doubles these past 4 years, and he has been sliding with Ray Thompson. It was his only way to stay in the sport.
There has been no central funding, but his doubles partner, Ray Thompson, and friend, had received some funding which helped them compete. It was only halfway through the fall of 2017 that he was asked to slide as a single luger once again. The Honorable Michael Howard who had been a luger himself, suggested that it was important for Great Britain to participate in the event as a nation if they ever wanted to obtain funding , and AJ should be sliding on their behalf. Bless Mike Howard. The qualifications were far less stringent than those of Sochi, and AJ qualified along with his teammate, Rupert Staudinger.
Rupert Staudinger, who has a British mom and German father , and Rupert’s uncle also happens to be the great German Coach , Wolfgang Staudinger. We knew A.J. would not finish in the top 10. I still feel he had the capability. His lines were beautiful., but if only he had that sled and more training…. if only if only… Life isn’t as easy … No regrets.. We are so proud of AJ that he competed, and was able to enjoy one last Olympics. I am glad he didn’t listen to us and quit. I was always taught as a child that there is no such word as ‘no’. I am happy he pursued his dream. So, A.J. finished in 22nd place out of 40 athletes. Without Mark Armstrong and Mike Howard he would not have competed . He should have competed in Sochi. That was heartbreaking. This should have been his 4th Olympics and not his third. It was SO important for Great Britain to compete. As a commentator noted, without central funding of any kind, a benefactor is needed to help the athletes in this sport. Rupert Staudinger at 20 shows promise, came in 33rd, BUT he needs support. You can NEVER expect results unless it is well funded.
I also heard that Korea had invested money into hiring German coaches, and buying decent equipment. When AJ was sliding (with perfect lines) I heard a commentator comment on the ‘noise his sled made’. Ha! Ashley Walden, a past Olympian said it was because of different technologies used. NO, it was because it was a less efficient sled Ashley, and not of the caliber of the other sleds.. When I think back on his finishing so much better on a borrowed training sled …. it makes you wonder. In luge, the time difference between the first and last athletes are within a few seconds. I heard how the coaches were preparing the sleds for the races. The kufens needed to be calibrated perfectly for each race. A.J. had no one. Many nations pay their athletes during their training. It enables them to study off season, purchase a home, and make life comfortable. There is none from England. A sports commentator mentioned that it might have hurt AJ to compete in both doubles and singles during the season . Did he have a choice? Other nations have training sleds, racing sleds and different kufens too. They have Porsche sleds! A.J. had one sled and one set of kufens which he has to sharpen, work on by himself.
I was thrilled to see Chris Mazder win his silver medal and the first ever US medal in luge for a male luger. What a great accomplishment, and I was also heartbroken that Felix Loch lost . Yes, he had obtained three gold medals previously, but he is a superb athlete. Someone must always lose. Straightaway, though, other athletes hugged, consoled, and gave support. That is the luge family. David Gleirscher of Austria won the gold after 50 years since the country had last won! How grand too! In luge, you share your joy, comfort each other in your losses , and embrace the experience always. You work towards tomorrow. Always working towards tomorrow . THAT is what makes an Olympian.
I was not able to travel to Korea to see AJ race, but I wanted to make it special by celebrating the experience in my office with an Alpine lunch. Charcroute Garni ( Bratwurst and Sauerkraut, Venison Pate, French rolls, salad, Apple Strudel, Beer and wine (of course!), I apologize to my associates and thank them for humoring me, but it was fun for me and I rejoiced in my son via my office, and it made me smile! I felt as if I was there and celebrating A.J. from afar! My younger son, Brett who is currently playing baseball in Australia traveled to Korea with Shannon, his lovely girlfriend, to see A.J. and are loving it there. He loves the food! I love ‘WHATSAPP!”
As a footnote, our country is comprised of so many Nationalities by origin and American by citizenship which makes us great, Many people do not realize the total dedication, time and monetary expense given by an athlete and their families . Many sports fund their athletes, and many do not. NBC only showed the top athletes because of TV time constraints and ratings. You had to really search to see an athlete on line. I, as a parent, had to access Eurosport in Great Britain in order to see the event in its entirety, live. If you weren’t in the top line up, you were forgotten. So many people asked where they could see A.J. and could not understand that they wouldn’t be able to. I am sure many other parents of athletes had the same issue.
Hopefully, it will be different in the future. Every athlete is deserving of recognition.
I am also hoping that Great Britain will recognize the fact that each sport needs funding. SO much money was allotted to the London Summer Olympic Games – just so they could win medals. It should be the same for winter sports also. Rupert Staudinger shows great promise, but he will need some monetary assistance.
SO, it is farewell to this sport, and oh my! What an experience!
Westchester is GREAT!