West Michigan a draw for luge enthusiasts

John L. Russell
Special to The Detroit News

Muskegon — The sound of heavy equipment across the street awoke teenager Mark Grimmette in the summer of 1984.

A rider begins his first luge run at Muskegon's Winter Sports Complex on Saturday, Jan 13, 2018, after a friendly push from starter Jack Page.

Muskegon State Park was building a luge run on the site of an old toboggan run, and crews were looking for volunteers to help build the course. Grimmette and friend Jim Rudicil pounded nails and carried materials, watching the track come together in the woods.

The two became some of the first there to slide on a small sled — a luge — on their backs, steering with minute movement of legs and shoulders to fly down the track. The runs became their life-long passion.

“It was a lot of excitement — it was a ‘aha’ moment,” Rudicil said.

The 850-foot track in Muskegon was built specifically for the public and is a safe introduction to the sport.

With the 2018 Winter Olympics about to open in PyeongChang, South Korea, on Friday, winter sports are attracting enthusiasts and thrill-seekers alike to this West Michigan sports park, where ice skating, cross-country skiing and luge are open to the public.

Rudicil is now the executive director of the Muskegon Winter Sports Park at the state park, and Grimmette became an Olympian and is now sports program director for USALuge at Lake Placid, New York.

Grimmette, a five-time Olympian, won two Olympic medals in double luge with partner Brian Martin, two of four sliders from America to win Olympic medals in Nagano, Japan, in 1998. The duo joined USA silver medalists Gordon Sheer and Chris Thorpe on the podium, winning bronze at the Winter Olympics, the first lugers outside Europe and the Soviet Union to medal in the sport.

Grimmette and Martin then won silver in 2002 in Salt Lake City, Utah. Grimmette was honored in the 2010 Vancouver games as the team’s flag bearer, carrying the American flag into the opening ceremonies.

“It’s an amazing experience to medal,” said Grimmette from his Lake Placid office. “It’s a culmination of all that you put into the sport and your career. Carrying the flag into the stadium in Vancouver was incredible. Hearing the chant ‘USA’ through the stadium, it was quite an honor.”

Instructor Jack Page demonstrates the proper position to use a luge sled. Each 2.5 hours sliding session begins with safety equipment handouts and instruction in a yurt before heading out to the track.

Grimmette oversees development and operation of programs for luge to feed into the Olympic program as well as coaches kids and young teens. He travels all over the country, supporting the Olympic luge team. He will be in South Korea with the USA luge team.

“It’s been a great life,” said Grimmette, “traveling all over the world and supporting such a great sport.”

In rare company

The nonprofit winter sports park in Muskegon uses land leased from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources within the Muskegon State Park. The park averages about 27,000 luge runs a year, with about 3,000 people registering weeks in advance to ensure a two-and-one-half-hour session, where lessons and safety equipment are passed out prior to runs.

“We sell around 400 season family passes each year,” Rudicil said. “Our luge is very popular.”

Top speeds of 25 mph are achieved from the lower starting gate where novices start their slide, with multiple runs during a session giving a beginners several chances to improve their skill level.

Located along the shore of Lake Michigan, the complex is one of only four luge courses in the United States; Salt Lake City, Utah and Lake Placid, New York — both Winter Olympic venues — and Negaunee, Michigan, an Olympic training site, are the other locations.

Riders wait their turn to run the luge run at Muskegon's Winter Sports Complex

The 850-foot track in Muskegon has six curves and two starting areas. A public rider begins his or her slide from the lower starting gate, three-quarters of the way up the course, 650 feet in length. Designed by three-time Olympian Frank Masley 30 years ago, the track was built specifically for the public and is a safe introduction to the sport.

“We’re busy every season, but when the Winter Olympics come along every four years, interest jumps,” Rudicil said. “No matter what their age, everyone thinks they can be an Olympian.”

The Muskegon course is a “Kunstbahn” track, an artificial course with solid walls and a man-made chute. The Olympic courses fall into this category, with consistent fast tracks.

More than 60 courses around the world, including the luge course in Negaunee in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, are “Naturbahn” tracks, following natural paths, roadways and slope contours to make the luge course. Boarded walls and bales of hay are positioned where needed for safety.

Muskegon’s park holds mid-week leagues and has a youth development program, where aspiring sliders from the age of eight years can develop their skills, with promising lugers being introduced into the programs at Lake Placid, which can lead to national and international competition and a spot on the USA National Team.

Both men and women compete, with men also running a doubles team, with one slider lying on top of his teammate.

Jimmy Andreano, 15, of Chamahon, Ill. runs toward the end of the luge run past banners at Muskegon's Winter Sports Complex on Saturday, Jan 13, 2018.

‘I know I can go faster’

The season begins each year when the weather turns cold enough to ice the track, which is hand-sculpted for best speeds and safety. Classes and sliding continue as long as the weather remains cold and the track is safe.

Luge coach and starter Jack Page uses a yurt, a small circular warming hut, to educate and demonstrate to each session the proper way to position oneself on a luge and how to maneuver the sleds, which are handmade from ash in Austria. Thirty new sleds purchased recently average up to $1,000 each with shipping.

“I never tire watching the kids and the fun they have,” said Page who has been coaching and starting riders for 31 years.

He starts each slide with instructions in the starting gate as others watch prior to their turns in the chute.

“I think I was faster than 20 mph,” said Jack Campbell, 12, of Naperville, Ill., recently.

Traveling with 13 other Boy Scouts from Troop 222, which has come north for a weekend each year for a decade, Campbell ended his fourth run with a huge grin: “I hope I can slide a few more times. I know I can go faster.”

Jimmy Andreano, 15, of Chamahon, Ill races down the luge run at Muskegon's Winter Sports Complex.

Another Boy Scout, on his third trip north with the troop, Cole Sable, 16, was enthusiastic about the luge.

“It’s awesome,” Sable said, “I hope to win a medal today.”

He finished with the third fastest time in his group, taking home a bronze medal.

“The sport is special to a lot of people,” said Gary Marvicsin, 60, of Farmington Hills.

Twenty years ago, Marvicsin and a couple of buddies, looking for some winter fun, decided to try the luge, and the weekend was an unqualified success.

Marvicsin and a group of buddies from work and his neighborhood tried to find activities to fill a winter weekend. Ideas such as bowling, skydiving and skiing all came up. So did the luge.

“In 1996, three of us drove up to Muskegon and did the luge,” he said. “The next year the group had grown to 18 men. We got hotel rooms and made memories all weekend.”

Having outgrown the transportation issues with so many people, the group hires a bus to deliver them to the sports park and hotel. They also adopted a name: The Luge Brothers. Embroidered hats, jackets and duffle bags all became part of the fun. They race and win medals and enjoy the fun shared by buddies.

“I even have my own luge,” Marvicsin said. “I’m a big guy, so I ordered a sled from Latvia that fits me. I win a lot of races.”

The group even has a historian who keeps a “luge bible” full of activities and stories from the weekends.

Cole Jable, 16, of Naperville, Ill busts into huge foam blocks after running the luge run. The foam blocks are used to painlessly stop forward movement at the end of the track.

John L. Russell is a freelance writer and photojournalist from Traverse City

Need for speed?

The Muskegon Winter Sports Complex

462 N. Scenic Drive, Muskegon

For more information, call (877) 879-5843 or go online at www.msports.org.