KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia —When you walk along the route of a luge track, you realize something: Lugers are crazy. Yes, you can probably reach this conclusion on your own without having to come up to Krasnaya Polyana and walk along the route of a luge track.
But the walk takes you a little bit closer into that world. Man does that thing go DOWN.
On television, luge and skeleton and bobsled athletes kind of look like they are just going really fast on this flat surface, not unlike a puck on an air hockey table. But, of course, that’s not it at all. When you get close to it you realize: They are falling off a mountain. That’s all. They are falling off a mountain on a sheet of ice with hairpin turns. Jerry Seinfeld famously joked that luge was the only sport that could be done voluntarily or involuntarily, and it’s probably truer than even he knows. If you fell on top you would end up on the bottom. Maybe not in one piece. But you would get there.
And it makes you wonder who in the world is drawn to this madness.
“Hello,” says a man who looks like a luger. Well, it’s hard to say what a luger is supposed to look like, but he is wearing a Switzerland Olympic team coat and he is also walking alongside the track. So “luger” is a pretty good bet. It turns out he is a luger. His name is Gregory Carigiet. And it is his first Olympics.
He begins to talk about the course, and how much he likes it, and in his voice you can hear the unchained joy he has for this sport. It’s the same joy you hear all over the Olympics, the same joy you hear in the voice of Devin Logan when she talks about doing wild tricks as she skis slopestyle, the same joy you hear in the voice of Ted Ligety when he talks about rushing down a mountain, the same joy you hear in the voice of J.R. Celski as he talks about the blur of a short track race.
All these sports have some degree of danger — every Winter Olympic sport is on snow or ice so there is always some risk. We have been reminded about the danger several times before these Olympic Games even begin. The slopestyle course was so scary that they tried to make adjustments to it after Norway’s Torstein Horgmo broke his collarbone and had to pull out. Shaun White promptly pulled out himself at least in part because of the risk of injury.
Then, Thursday, the women’s downhill course was so scary that they shut it down for hours and tried to take some of the danger out of it. One jump was so big and out of control that American Laurenne Ross said, “you feel like you’re not going to come down.”
And all week there have been subtle reminders of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili, who was killed when he crashed during a training run on the day of the Opening Ceremony four years ago in Vancouver.
Carigiet is more than aware of the danger of his sport. He says that five years ago, at that same Whistler course where Kumaritashvili crashed, there was something not quite secured at the women’s starting block and Carigiet smashed into it, head first, broke his nose, suffered a concussion and badly cut himself just above his eye.
“They needed 10 minutes to clean up the blood,” he says, not unhappily. In fact, he says it with a pretty big smile on his face, and he feigns outrage at our laughter.
“Funny, eh?” he says. “Well maybe it is funny now.”
You can tell he thinks it’s funny now. He talks about how much he loves that course where he broke his nose. Does this make him crazy? He talks about how much he loves this course in Sochi, how much he loves all of it. He’s a luger! It seems, as he talks, that is the only thing he ever wanted to be.
As it turns out … that last part is truer than you ever could have imagined. Carigiet is not considered by many to be a medal contender (though he does actually have the Sochi course record, which he set in a smaller event last year). Switzerland is not a country that particularly cares for luge (the Swiss team trains in Germany; no Swiss luger has ever finished in the top 10 much less medaled).
And, so what? This has been more or less the only thing Carigiet has though about since he was a little boy. He works as an oncology nurse — caring for cancer patients — and he has saved every dime he could so he could luge. Last year, he ran out of money, so he sold his car and his motorcycle so he could keep luging (and he said he would sell the shirt off his back). He has a fantastic Web site, which includes a GQ-looking portrait with lines pointed to various body parts. Each line corresponds with a description.
For instance: 1 points to his head. The description: “A head that wins hearts.”
No. 5 points to his shoulders: “Strong shoulders to bear great responsibility.”
No. 6 point to his heart: “A heart to attract bright minds.”
No. 8 points his stomach: “A belly where good decisions are made.”
All so he can luge. Anything so he can luge. To raise money at one point, Carigiet told people that if they pledged 100 Swiss francs (about $110), they could send him a photograph and he would put it on his sled. This way, he said, they could ride with him.
Carigiet is utterly aware of the danger. He is completely aware that what he does is, at least in part, crazy. But he does it joyfully, and you sense it is not because he’s some crazy thrill-seeker and it’s not because he wants to win an Olympic gold medal. So why? There’s the competition, of course. There’s the glamour. In an interview, he once talked about the feeling of being on the sled, racing downward, and how it makes him feel. It seems he never feels more alive.
But you get the sense that his answer to “Why do you luge?” would be to not understand the question. And if he did understand, he would probably say that the only thing crazier than to luge is not to luge.