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Spring break, luge style
April 13, 2018

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LAKE PLACID - "Scary." That was the word used most by people participating in the USA Luge Fantasy Camp last week when asked about their first time on a luge sled at the Mount Van Hoevenberg track.

The second-most used word was "fun."

Ten people - seven men and three women - from around the nation traveled to Lake Placid for the three-day camp from Friday, April 6 to Sunday, April 8. The demand was so high that a second camp was held earlier in the week, on Tuesday and Wednesday, for five people.

"I really love the fantasy camp because it's a great way to finish off a long season, and people who come here are really enthusiastic," said Gordy Sheer, USA Luge director of marketing and sponsorships. "They have a lot of fun, and they wind up becoming fast friends."

Sheer started the annual fantasy camp in 2000, shortly after retiring from the ice and moving into the office.

That was two years after he won a silver medal at the 1998 Olympic Winter Games in Nagano, Japan, with doubles partner Chris Thorpe.

"We broke the barrier," Sheer told the Associated Press after winning the silver.

Sheer was part of a one-two punch that year. While he and Thorpe took home the silver, Mark Grimmette and Brian Martin got the bronze. They were the first U.S. lugers to win Olympic medals. Grimmette, who won a silver medal four years later in Salt Lake City, is now the director of sports programs at USA Luge.

It's this atmosphere - surrounded by Olympians - that fantasy campers enter when they arrive at USA Luge headquarters on Church Street. It's a quick walk through the woods from their rooms at the U.S. Olympic Training Center on Old Military Road.

The fantasy camp has three main objectives, according to Sheer.

"The first is to give people an opportunity to live the life of an OIympic-level athlete," he said. "The second is it is obviously a good marketing tool for us in terms of the general public and also for potential sponsors and existing sponsors. And finally, it's a fundraiser for USA Luge. It helps make sure our athletes and programs can function."

The cost of the program is $2,000 per person.

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The camp

The three-day fantasy camp began with an orientation at the USA Luge office, gearing up in the conference room before heading into the adjoining start ramp room to practice on the ice for the first time.

Campers grabbed their sleds, and Sheer gave them some pointers before pushing each one down the ramp. Marketing Manager Dmitry Feld, a former luge athlete, helped campers off their sleds after they slid up the other side of the ramp, their feet being stopped by a large slab of foam. Feld also taught them the proper way to carry a sled.

After the morning session indoors, it was time for the real deal. On the afternoon of the first day, they had three hours of ice time at the Mount Van Hoevenberg sliding track, beginning at Start 5 on Curve 12 and eventually moving to starting points farther up the track in the following days. USA Luge athletes, such as 2018 silver medalist Chris Mazdzer, stopped by to help the campers over the weekend. The second and third days were spent on the track, and the campers and staff spent the last evening together at a special banquet.

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The campers

USA Luge fantasy campers come from all walks of life and travel from cities across the nation.

"People who have that common thread of either getting the Olympic bug or getting the speed bug or both," Sheer said. "We also have people who have seen luge on TV and said, 'Man, I really want to try that someday.' And then they look us up online and find the fantasy camp."

There were three couples at the fantasy camp last weekend: Sara and Joe Chianese, of Columbus, Ohio; Rob and Cheryl Holsapfel, of Cleveland, Ohio; and Jaime and Traci Gerth, of Los Angeles, California. The other four campers were Bill Linka, of Richmond, Virginia; Keith Lensch, of Tuscon, Arizona; Mitch Wise, of Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin; and John Armstrong, of Madison, Wisconsin.

The fantasy camp is also an opportunity for USA Luge to offer a perk for their sponsors. Team Worldwide, for example, ships the U.S. luge sleds to competition sites across the globe, and every year, the company chooses one staff member to send to the fantasy camp. This year, it was Sara Chianese, a Team Worldwide branch owner at Columbus, Ohio.

"Honestly, I love the luge and as a 20-year supporter of the luge at Team Worldwide, I grew up watching these guys and gals do this," Sara said.

This was Sara's first time on a luge sled and her first time in Lake Placid. She described her first time down the Mount Van Hoevenberg sliding track.

"I bumped every single wall like a pinball machine," Sara said. "It was a little terrifying. The first one was scary. The second one was better. The third was almost as scary as the first."

Sara brought her husband Joe to Lake Placid, and it didn't take much to talk him into it.

"He's a daredevil," she said. "He's in it for the thrill, so he's all about it for the adrenaline rush."

Joe concurs.

"I was excited to do something new, and the adrenaline rush," Joe said. "This is as good as it gets. It was exciting, scary and it was a blast."

What other kinds of adrenaline-rush activities does Joe do?

"Nothing," he said. "Nothing."

As parents of 5- and 7-year-old children, the Chianeses jumped at the opportunity to try something new as a couple. And the USA Luge Fantasy Camp is a step up from their last adventure - seeing "Sherlock Gnomes" with the kids.

"My husband can't stop smiling," Sara said. "That's one of the biggest things. That's huge. It's so much fun. We have two little kiddos at home, and he's like my third kiddo out here. ... I would totally come back and do this."

Jaime and Traci Gerth were also looking for a new adventure. They figured trying luge in Lake Placid would rank up there with other adrenaline-pumping sports they enjoy, such as high-altitude skiing.

Jaime, a real estate investor, first got hooked on luge after hopping on a sled with rollers. That was during a charity event hosted by his friend's company, U.S. Venture, a USA Luge sponsor based in Appleton, Wisconsin.

"It was fun and I had the opportunity to come on out and we decided to do it," Jaime said.

USA Luge offered the fantasy camp as one of the prizes to be auctioned off at the charity event, and the Gerths won.

"We bid on it, so the money went to the local charities in Wisconsin, and we got to come out here," Jaime said.

After four times down the track, Jaime described the experience as "scary and exhilarating, a little sore, a little rough."

This was the Gerths first time in Lake Placid, and they enjoyed meeting new people, seeing the Olympic sites and the fantasy camp experience.

"Just the sport of it, racing down the mountain, the noise, the wind. It's hard to take it all in," Jaime said.

For Bill Linka, this year's fantasy camp was his fourth. He was introduced to luge during a summer vacation in Lake Placid several years ago, taking a ride on a sled with rollers while visiting the ski jumps with his wife. That's where he first met USA Luge staffers Dmitry Feld and Mark Grimmette.

"They said, 'You gotta come up,'" Linka said.

Linka's first fantasy camp was in 2014, and he's been here for the past three years. Other than his time with USA Luge, Linka does not spend any time on a luge sled. Yet, compared to his fellow campers, he looked like a seasoned veteran.

"It's very relaxed, and I watch a lot of YouTube videos," Linka said. "I do a lot of fun stuff. I do a lot of interesting stuff. But I don't do anything that's a little bit scary and fun. So it's a little fun-and-scary type of thing."

Back home in Virginia, Linka is a lawyer. Asked if rocketing down the Mount Van Hoevenberg ice, feet first on a sled, is scarier than being a lawyer, and he paused.

"No," he said. "Sometimes being a lawyer is pretty scary."

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