NEW HAVEN — For 13-year-old Elijah Pedriani there’s nothing like the rush of the icy track, the rapid turns, the way everything else around him blurs together as he speeds by.
Ever since the New Haven teen returned from a one-week screening camp at the USA Luge headquarters in Lake Placid, N.Y., a few weeks ago, Pedriani has been itching to get back on the ice.
“You’re going down the track, just flying at speeds — you go through a curve and it’s pretty much like you’re in a dream,” Pedriani said. “You see things flying by you, ice just flying by you. You’re just whizzing by, and it’s really cool. Nothing is on your mind except, ‘I need to make this turn, that turn.’ Like a dream. That’s the best way to describe it.”
Luge is an Olympic sport in which the competitor rides a one-person sled, feet first, down an iced track with both walled-in straights and banked curves in an attempt to reach top speeds.
Pedriani first got into luge when he started avidly watching the sport during the 2010 Winter Olympics. At the time, the Mount Abraham Union Middle School seventh-grader never imagined that he would get to try it himself, though he attempted to reproduce the experience in his own backyard in New Haven.
“I took a sled out and I just made this little turn and I was like ‘Oh, this is fun,’” he said. “Then all the snow melted and I was like, ahhh.”
But just a couple months down the road, Pedriani’s mother, Valerie, opened up a July issue of Seven Days and saw an ad in the classifieds placed by USA Luge. “Wanted,” it read, calling for all 11-to-14-year-olds interested in trying their hand at luge.
“We laugh about this because I never read classifieds,” Valerie Pedriani said. “But after some research on the Internet, we found out that they’ve been doing this method of finding young people for 20 years.”
So come September, Pedriani went to Plattsburgh, N.Y., to try out for the national luge association. In Plattsburgh, he found a concrete track with a five-foot ramp and cones around which the hopeful lugers had to navigate.
“They had hay bales on the side in case people crashed,” Pedriani recalled. “And a lot of people did. I didn’t. There were cones set up and we had to weave in and out of them and go to the end and then we had to carry the sled back up. We got maybe five runs in and that was it.”
Once Pedriani returned home, the waiting game began.
“After that we were like, who knows, because there were hundreds of kids there,” Pedriani’s mother said. “But at the end of September we got a letter saying, ‘We feel Elijah has what it takes and we want to ask him just to try this camp.’”
Pedriani was invited to spend just short of a week at a USA Luge screening camp in Lake Placid, where he was one of 18 kids his age, nine girls and nine boys, who would try to secure a spot on the Junior National D-Team. The camp ran from Nov. 14-22.
“Going there, I was just so excited. It was just this giant facility,” he said, remembering what it was like to arrive at the Olympic training center. “I thought, yes, this is going to be so much fun. I said, ‘Oh, we should go see the track.’ And I went in and saw the track and was like ‘Ahhhh!’ And thought, ‘This is going to be so much fun.’”
Though Pedriani had only glimpsed the track from behind and didn’t see any ice that day, he felt confident that “it would be fun and an amazing experience.”
The morning of day one of the screening process brought a short run, followed by a group workout.
“The group workouts were pretty fun,” Pedriani said. “We did ladders on one day, and another day it was weights. One of the workouts was really crazy — the gym’s super long and we had to take a medicine ball, chest pass it, run, sprint, pick it up, chest past it all the way back to the other side, then sprint back with it over our heads. And we did that three times. It was pretty hard, but a lot of fun.”
Following lunch, Pedriani finally made it onto the ice for the first time.
“After lunch, we did the starts,” Pedriani said, explaining that the starts are practiced on separate tracks from the runs.
Getting a good start is key to a good run, he said.
“It’s so difficult,” he said. “You can’t pull super hard because then your stronger arm will take over and turn you. It’s more done with your back, rather than your arms.
“It’s really hard to perfect. I probably did 40 pulls and I’ve only gotten 10 that were good.”
And after the lugers-to-be practiced their start techniques, Pedriani finally took his first run down the refrigerated track.
“The run, that first run — my leg was shaking,” he said. “I was like, ‘Oh, I’m just cold.’ I was excited, but a little scared.”
In a matter of seconds, however, Pedriani’s fears flew away.
“When I got on it, I thought, ‘This is fun.’ I remember going into that first turn and thinking, ‘Wow, this is fast,’ and when I went down I was like, ‘Oh my gosh! No one’s faster than me!’”
After just a few runs, Pedriani felt as though he were getting the hang of the basics.
“You have to be able to control the sled,” he said. “Your feet, there are these two runners on the sled and you sort of just push in and down and you lean your shoulder and turn your head a little so you lean your shoulder the way you want to go and push that opposite foot.”
Pedriani’s performance on the first, 30 mph track won him the chance to try Start Four, where he reached up to 50 mph. As speeds increased, Pedriani admitted that he got nervous as he took a couple of turns on the higher track.
“That was where I was kind of scared,” he said. “Sometimes you would take a turn too high and whip into a wall. I think I hit a wall once, but some people were crashing.”
But Pedriani looks at situations like the Georgian luger’s fatal crash during this year’s Winter Olympics as a part of the sport.
“There’s a risk to it, like all sports, but you have to take that to have a lot of fun,” he said. “I wasn’t really scared, I thought, wow, that’s sad, but he did it doing one of the sports he loved.”
Though Pedriani escaped crashing, his friend, Gracie Weinberg of Middlebury, who was also at the screening camp, hurt her shoulder and her hip. Weinberg, a sixth-grader at Mary Hogan Elementary School, did not let the crash faze her.
Weinberg is currently back at Lake Placid, having been awarded a spot on the Junior National D-Team at the end of November, after attending three separate screening sessions starting in 2009. As she was busy training, she was unavailable for comment at the time this article went to print.
HOPE FOR THE NEXT LEVEL
Pedriani hopes to follow in Weinberg’s footsteps, and expects to hear back from USA Luge by January. Though he would be thrilled if he were offered a spot on the D-Team, he would also be happy to just get invited back for a second screening.
“From what he knew from camp,” his mother said, “we thought that they might have a second screening or an invite to the D by January, so we’ve been looking in the mail every day.”
But should Pedriani get invited to join the junior development team, he would have a big decision to make. Once on the D-Team, training ramps up to multiple, two-week sessions that run from January to March.
“It’s a real commitment after that,” Pedriani said. “You go for two weeks of training, then two weeks of regular school, then two weeks of training, and so on.”
But Pedriani thinks he’s ready to make that commitment, and his mom completely supports him.
“When I saw that ad, I thought it had his name written all over it,” she said. “A lot of parents said to me, ‘Why would you even encourage your child to do it?’ but it’s just so Elijah. How could you not want your kid to do something they like?”
Though actually competing at the Olympic level is still a long way off for those on the D-team, Pedriani is excited for the next step.
“He’s feeling pretty confident,” Valerie Pedriani said.
Tamara Hilmes is at email@example.com.