By David Vergun, Army News ServiceSeptember 5, 2017
LAKE PLACID, N.Y. --- Sgt. Mathew Mortinsen was on Team USA bobsledding in Sochi, Russia, in the 2014 Winter Olympics.
The Olympian is now training to secure a spot on Team USA's bobsledding roster for the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, in February.
He said his goal to make the cut is within reach and he feels he has it in him to medal too, as he's currently ranked first in the U.S. and third internationally.
Getting that good takes a lot of work and dedication, traits that are invaluable for the makings of a good Soldier, said Mortinsen, who serves as an interior electrician with the New York National Guard.
MENTORING FUTURE LUGERS
Despite training six days a week, month after month, Mortinsen said he manages to squeeze in time on weekends to volunteer with kids.
The group he volunteers with is known as USA Luge Slider, the official recruiting organization for Team USA Luge.
The organization, composed of volunteer coaches and athletes, travels the country, holding luge clinics for children, he said.
While many kids, particularly in the north, have gone sledding or tobogganing, the sport of luge is relatively unknown to them since luge courses are relatively nonexistent, he said. The clinic's aim is to introduce young people to the sport and look for potential candidates for the national team.
It's a testament to the organization's success that around 90 percent of Winter Olympic luge competitors today were discovered and then recruited from luge clinics for kids, he said.
The vast majority of the volunteer work occurs during the summer months, he said. Since there's no snow and ice then, they remove the ice runners or sliders from their sleds and replace them with wheels, similar to those found on roller blades. Then, would-be lugers can roll down local streets as if they were paved with ice.
The luge clinics are for any kid between the ages of 9 to 13, but they must have a parent or guardian with them, Mortinsen said.
Kids participating in the clinics are given a safety brief and then they are invited to steer the luge down the street, following the centerline of the road. Then they eventually progress to weaving between cones and their confidence and skill increases, he said.
Meanwhile, the coaches and athletes are grading each kid for potential and trainability, he said. While skill and athletic ability is important, the team is especially looking for coach-ability.
"You're always going to find talented people, but if they don't listen to what you're saying, there's no reason for you to be there and there's no way to help them succeed because they don't want your help," he said. "If you can find someone with the ability and the coach-ability to be a great athlete, where they can go is limitless."
That's a similarity, in a way, to what Soldiers must do, he said. Soldiers, for instance, must listen to their officers and non-commissioned officers and learn and progress based on their advice and direction.
Out of, say 1,000 to 2,000 children tested from about six locations across the country each summer, about 60 to 100 are invited to come to the Luge Training Facility at Lake Placid to actually try out on ice and potentially become members of the USA Luge Junior Development Team, Mortinsen said.
They then receive additional training and can climb the development ladder to becoming members of the National and Olympic Luge Teams.
Previously, kids older than 13 were recruited, he said, but it was discovered through experience that kids 9 to 13 are more willing to train.
Mortinsen said that without the efforts of USA Luge Slider, "we would not have a luge program."
AFTER THE FINAL RACE IS OVER
Eventually, Mortinsen said, he will retire from the sport and fall back on his Army career. He said he hopes then to get into luge coaching, but he wants to see the United States continue to field a competitive luge team.
While retirement from competition is inevitable for every athlete, Mortinsen said he's not looking forward to it. One reason for that is that he and teammate Jayson Terdiman have medaled in several World Cups.
Mortinsen said he feels he and his Terdiman have the potential to excel even more, particularly since Terdiman, who is in his early 20s, is progressing rapidly in the sport.
"There's a saying that an athlete dies twice," Mortinsen said. "Once when they stop being an athlete, and once for real."
"When you get to the end of the road as an athlete, it's scary," Mortinsen said. "Having the military in my background really helps me to get through that because I know the military will always be there to support me."
But all of the training can take a toll on the best of athletes, he said.
Going down a slope at 80-plus mph without padding can be dangerous or even deadly, he said. "I've been fortunate. I've only had one severe concussion. I've also broken most of the toes in my foot, split open an elbow, sprained ligaments, been bruised and had ice burns."
He described what it's like to crash: "When you lose control, you go flying and are basically a hood ornament at that point. All the weight of the sled and your teammate crashes down on you, plus the G-forces of the curves pushes you into the ice."
Fortunately, crashes don't happen very often, he said. They mostly occur on unfamiliar tracks or to junior athletes "who are still working out the kinks of the sport," he said.
But athletes at any level can make mistakes and stumble, he added.
"You can learn from your mistakes. Mistakes in the long run help you to overcome and be a better person," he said. "I don't think of mistakes as a negative. I think of them as a positive way to learn and grow."
Mortinsen said he's proud to be in the Army, proud to represent the Army in competition, and proud of all who have served. He said he especially likes to hear from Soldiers on social media who may have seen him compete. "It means so much to me," he said.
(Follow David Vergun on Twitter: @vergunARNEWS)