By Brandon HENSLEY
This one time, Aleks Verga was sliding down the luge race course when she lost control of her sled. This was always a fear of hers. When the 11-year-old first tried luge, she was scared. Though the diminutive Verga wasn’t a stranger to racing downward on mountains – she’s an avid skier – she didn’t want to flip over, which was understandable. But there she was, in Park City, Utah, doing just that. Verga lost her grip and spider-manned on to a wall.
No, she didn’t all of sudden gain the ability to sling webs from her wrist and battle super villains. To spider-man in luge is to lose grip and plant your body in way that looks like Peter Parker trying to scale tall buildings.
To Verga, a raspy-voiced girl who likes getting henna tattoos at Venice Beach almost as much she enjoys playing for L.A. Premiere Soccer Club, it must have been pretty gnarly.
But to spider-man isn’t the only thing one can do when slipping up on the race track. You can lose your head, which happens when your neck drops during a high G-force turn, and you can ping-pong, which is to bounce violently between the barriers after losing control.
“There really aren’t any terms for anything. We just call it what it would look like,” said Michael O’Gara, a Clark Magnet High freshman who luges with Verga.
Aside from those two, there are three others from Southern California who would love to tell people all about luge, if only their peers knew exactly what luge is.
O’Gara, Verga, Sarah Jared and siblings Jacob and Elizabeth Petersen all compete with Team USA in luge, the sport that captivated the foothills two years ago when La Cañada’s Kate Hanson gained local fame for her participation during the Sochi, Russia Winter Olympics.
It was at Hanson’s event, a slider search in May 2014, when the kids first tried out for USA Luge, on the asphalt of Michigan Hill in La Cañada. There were 13 kids selected by USA Luge to join the official team tryout in Utah. Of those 13, nine were invited to join the USA D Team (the beginner level for training), and now it’s just down to these five, called the Junior D team-west (there is also an east team in Lake Placid, New York).
Jacob, a Rosemont Middle School student who plays basketball and baseball, said he loves the speed of this sport.
“Not many things can compare to it,” said Jacob, looking like a boy straight out of a 1950s-era sitcom, with his crew cut, wiry frame and horizontal-stripped T-shirt. “Sometimes you get to be the boss of [your] own self. No one else tells you what to do.”
His sister Elizabeth is a freshman basketball player at Crescenta Valley High who aspires to attend BYU in a few years. Elizabeth has a reserved nature about her, but O’Gara’s mother Melissa, who teaches Spanish at Clark, calls her one of the best and fiercest competitors she knows.
Then there’s Jared, a 13-year-old who lives in Glendora. Her father drove her to the slider search because, hey, why not, and now she is taking time off from school to compete against the local Park City team for weeks at a time.
It was mentioned that the Park City kids might take this for granted, while this group, named the Palm Tree Sliders by their USA development coach Jon Owen, was determined to understand the fundamentals and intricacies of racing. They said their hard work has paid off in being able to hang with the natives, and that’s made them proud.
“We’re mainly there to learn how to do things better, how to get used to the track more than we already are,” O’Gara said. “When they’re there, it’s a regular sport … This is something any of them can do.”
“We take it more seriously than they do,” Elizabeth said. “They’re up there every day, and we have one week.”
When the kids return home from training, which runs from November to March, they are greeted by their friends, but not too much is made of where they’ve been. It’s hard for others to get a grasp on the sport of luge, which the Palm Tree Sliders say is often confused for other winter sports such as bobsledding and skeleton.
“When I tell people, it’s cool for that one second. But at the same time they don’t know what it is, and when you try to explain it or go into detail, they lose interest,” Elizabeth said.
No matter for someone like Jared, who finds peace zooming down an ice mountain, even though she’s flipped her pod many times.
“It’s very calming … If you do it a lot, it gets more and more familiar,” she said.
O’Gara, who has aspirations to be an animator, loves figuring out how to better his times, whether it’s steering differently or finding better angles on turns.
Each one has different ideas on how far to take luging. The two biggest enthusiasts are Vergas, who would love to compete in the Junior Olympics one day, and O’Gara, who is aiming for future invites to Nationals and World Cup participation.
“That’s mainly what I want: the travel, meeting new people, learning new tracks,” he said.
Those dreams are still years away from being realized. But with patience and perseverance, this luge thing, with a nod to Verga’s imitation of a certain friendly neighborhood superhero, just might stick.