Olympic Thrills

You may not make it to the Games in Italy this winter, but there’s no reason you can’t learn to ski jump, speed skate and even tackle the luge like an Olympian.

Every four years, when we watch the Olympic Winter Games on TV, it’s more than the cold weather giving us goose bumps. It’s the sight of those supremely fit, gifted and seemingly superhuman athletes defying the laws of physics. As they rocket across the ice and snow, they send chills down the spines of those of us following the action from armchairs thousands of miles away.

This February, when Torino, Italy, hosts the 2006 Olympic Winter Games, we’ll no doubt once again be transfixed by the inspiring images of gold-medal feats. But this year, if we like, we can do more than just sit there. We can join in the fun.

It’s easier than ever to experience Olympic thrills firsthand. You don’t have to travel to another country or train your whole life, either. No matter your experience level, plenty of places in the United States invite you to try your hand at Olympic-style luging, ski jumping or speed skating – without fear of reprisal from some low-scoring, embittered judge.

A few days of kicking, gliding, soaring, skating or sliding may, at the very least, convince you to pursue a more thrilling weekend workout. And who knows? It might even inspire you to set your sights on some serious competition – or an Olympic torch of your own.

If you’re intrigued by the idea of transforming your interaction with the Winter Olympics from an experience of remote and passive awe to one of immediate action and accessibility, read on. We’ll introduce you to some folks who have made it happen, and provide resources to get you started on your own Olympic-inspired adventure, whether that turns out to be ski jumping, speed skating, luge or some other endeavor altogether.

Smitten with Ski Jumping

On a whim in the winter of 1993, the Van family made a day trip to a hillside above Park City, Utah, to get a firsthand glimpse of the towering new ski jumps. They had been built as part of Utah’s effort to win the role of host for the 2002 Olympic Winter Games, and after constructing the jumps, local officials opened the smaller slopes to the public. The Vans, alpine skiers who’d recently moved from Detroit to Park City, had never tried ski jumping, but they decided to give it a shot.

Their then-7-year-old daughter, Lindsey, was already an experienced ski racer. And once she got a taste of ski jumping, she didn’t want to stop. “I pretty much just quit ski racing on the spot and started ski jumping instead,” she says. “It was an addictive feeling.”

What began as a whimsical day trip gradually evolved into an enduring passion – and a 30-hour-a-week training schedule. Van, now one of the top female jumpers in the world, is currently lobbying, along with other international competitors, to add women’s ski jumping to the Olympic Winter Games by 2010, when Vancouver, British Columbia, will host.

Of course, like all newcomers, Lindsey Van worked up to the big hills gradually. “Coaches start teaching you basic jumping skills on small hills of about 5 meters,” Van explains, “and as soon as you are comfortable, they move you up to 10 meters, then 20, then 40 and so on. The jumps get increasingly difficult as you move up in hill size.”

That’s the kind of big-air experience that would make a lot of us pause. But Van insists that once you try it, you’ll like it – a lot. “The flight time is enjoyable because it’s so long,” says Van. “It’s an incredibly free feeling: Your legs are engaged, and so is your core, but your body is relaxed, not tense.”

Where to Jump:

The Minneapolis Ski Club organizes “Try-It Days” at the Bush Lake ski jumps (952-484-8956; www.minneapolisskiclub.com).

The Norge Ski Club in Fox River Grove, Ill., operates five jumping hills (847-639-9718; www.norgeski club.com).

In Wisconsin, the Eau Claire Ski Club meets Thursday nights during the winter (715-839-2677). To fly off the same hills that helped make Van one of the best in the world, sign up for a half-day ski jumping introduction class at Utah Olympic Park ($65; 435-658-2359; www.utaholympicpark.com).

How to Train: Playing basketball or volleyball will help you develop the basic jumping skills and fast-twitch muscles you’ll want for ski jumping. To further prepare, work on your core (see luge training tips at right). Also practice plyometric and agility exercises to improve your speed and explosiveness, which will help you fly off the jump smoothly. “The quicker you are, the better chance you have of making a successful takeoff jump,” says Utah-based coach Mike Keuler. Find drills and related training equipment at www.sparqtraining.com.

Physical benefits: Balance, coordination, core strength.

The Lure of the Luge

Mark Hobson, 58, lives in Au Sable Forks, N.Y., not far from Lake Placid, which hosted the Winter Games in 1932 and 1980, and which has three refrigerated luge tracks. Three years ago, Hobson decided to show up for a meeting of the “LocaLuge” program. To his surprise, the first night’s session wasn’t just a chips-and-dip orientation, but a crash course – literally – in a sport that requires participants to fly down the ice on an impossibly slippery sled, prone and feet first.

“My first trip down was filled with angst and apprehension,” Hobson says. “It suddenly dawned on me that there were no brakes or bailout areas. I nailed the wall a couple of times.” But by the time Hobson had finished a few runs, he was into it. “I came home so pumped with adrenaline,” he says, “that I was calling people until 2:30 in the morning.”

Elite luge athletes typically hurtle down the track at up to 90 miles an hour, but amateurs like Hobson travel at safer speeds of 35 to 60 miles per hour, depending on the track. During his first few times on the course, he got a few bumps and bruises from hitting the track walls, but with some practice and a pair of soccer shin guards (borrowed from his daughter) he started enjoying much smoother, injury-free trips.

“Once you realize you’re probably not going to do yourself any real bodily harm, the fear becomes more minimal,” says Hobson, who now visits the track every other week. “Luge becomes like a lot of other sports that require precision and control.”

Where to Luge: The gold-medal track of the Salt Lake 2002 Games at Utah Olympic Park is one of two certified, full-length courses in the country (the other is at Lake Placid). At the Utah track, you can take a three-hour Intro to Luge class ($150), or attend the USA Luge Fantasy Camps in Lake Placid, N.Y., or Park City, Utah, that give you a weekend of instruction ($2,000; 800-872-5843; www.usaluge.org).

There’s also a shortened, artificial track in Muskegon, Mich., where clinics are held every winter weekend (231-744-4408; www.msports.org/luge.htm) and a natural track in Negaunee, Mich. (906-475-5843). Hooked on the feeling? Join one of six USA Luge–recognized clubs, which are listed at www.usaluge.org.

How to Train: A regular yoga, Pilates or gymnastics routine will help make your core strength and balance more luge-worthy, but you’ll probably also want to add some abdominal work and intervals to your regular workout. Olympic luge athletes undergo extensive strength and cardiovascular training for the entire body, and some of the most important components of preparation are core exercises, according to Jon Lundin of USA Luge, the sport’s Lake Placid–based governing body. Try crunches, bicycles, medicine-ball tosses and Swiss-ball movements to strengthen the abdominal muscles that will stabilize your body – and your sled. Interval training will help provide the bursts of speed necessary to propel yourself out of the starting gate.

Physical benefits: Core strength, aerobic and anaerobic conditioning, and flexibility.

Sold on Speed Skating

Steve Trynoski of St. Paul, Minn., was a typical dad, throwing around baseballs and footballs with his kids and attending their hockey games. But when his 12-year-old son developed an interest in speed skating, Trynoski decided to give the sport a try as well. He invested in a pair of “longblades” and soon found he was hooked.

“There is nothing like the smooth glide of longblades propelling you across the ice at a high rate of speed,” the 52-year-old says. “The cardiovascular fitness you gain from the sport is a side benefit compared to the pure fun of ice skating.”

Trynoski encourages beginning speed skaters to invest in the guidance of a good instructor. Trynoski found a coach through the Twin City Speedskating Club to help him and his son develop the precise technique that the long, thin blades require. After a year of practice, Trynoski says, “I felt comfortable being on the same rink with the really good skaters.”

He also finds that gliding around results in few aches and pains. “There’s little impact on bones or joints,” Trynoski says. “Even falling on the ice rarely causes serious injury.”

Where to Speed Skate: The Guidant John Rose Minnesota OVAL in Roseville, Minn., offers adult speed skating classes on Wednesday evenings ($30; 651-792-7007; www.ci. roseville.mn.us/parks).

Wisconsin’s Pettit National Ice Center has multiweek skating-school sessions ($100; 414-266-0100; www.thepettit.com/school/speed.htm).

Further south, the South East Ice Speed Skating Club promotes the sport in North and South Carolina, with team practices at the Eastland Mall’s Ice House in Charlotte, N.C. (704-510-9855).

In Salt Lake City, you can learn to speed skate on the earth’s fastest ice at the Utah Olympic Oval, where 10 Olympic and eight world records were set at the 2002 Games ($45; 801-968-6825; www.utaholympicpark.com). Find club and association listings at www.usspeedskating.org/clubs.html.

How to Train: Cycling, hockey and in-line skating all offer a mix of aerobic and anaerobic conditioning, combined with the kind of balance work that’s essential to speed skating. You’ll want to add sets of squats, lunges and wall-sits to your regular regimen to build up strength in your leg muscles. Also practice triceps dips (which help with your arm swinging), and ramp up your cardio routine with sprints or intervals.

Physical benefits: Cardiovascular fitness, leg and glute conditioning, improved balance.

Cold Call

Whether you’re feeding an Olympic fantasy or looking for a good reason to get outside this winter, you’ll find that training for any of these sports can add an exciting new component to your fitness routine. Participating in them can also spark some refreshing new friendships. “Taking laps on our oval burns calories, is great aerobic exercise and provides a social outlet for people to meet,” says Sandy Caligiore of Lake Placid’s Olympic Regional Development Authority (www.orda.org), which oversees the area’s ski jumping, luge and cross-country skiing programs.

With programs like Lake Placid’s becoming more prevalent around the country, it’s becoming easier for regular folks to get involved with sports that once seemed arcane and inaccessible. So easy, in fact, that you might find yourself recording the Winter Olympics this winter so you can pursue some athletic ambitions of your own.


WEB EXTRA!

Cross-Country Skiing

Joni Aker of Fort Worth, Texas, was a tennis player when she began cross-country skiing 15 years ago. Though she’d rarely been on snow, she took to the new sport instantly. “It literally takes only one lesson to enjoy,” says the 58-year-old, who skis at New Mexico’s Enchanted Forest. “I’ve known people who aren’t even willing to try cross-country skiing because of their perceptions that it’s so much work. That’s unfortunate because you can have a great time as a beginner simply by walking the trails with skis on.”

Aker admits that it can be a slippery slope in mastering the technique. “I didn’t know how to turn, how to get up after falling, or how to stop!” she says of her first time on “skinny skis,” which feel different from alpine skis because they’re narrower and don’t have sharp edges. But once Aker learned how to control the equipment, she found herself exploring all of the Enchanted Forest trails and then heading out into the backcountry.

Taking advantage of the long breaks that come with her job as a university professor, Aker skis for a month each Christmas and a week each March; the cross-country sessions, she says, help her manage chronic back pain. “Skiing keeps my muscles stretched out, and that relieves the pressure on my spine,” she says. “Cross-country skiing is exhilarating, and I get an endorphin high from the activity, which helps in my pain management. Plus, it’s simply beautiful in the woods.”

Where to Cross-Country Ski: Some 200 Nordic-ski centers in North America are part of the Cross Country Ski Areas Association (www.xcski.org), which will point you to trails, tips and more, from Alaska’s Matanuska-Susitna Borough areas (907-745-9690; www.matsugov.us/RecServices/) to West Virginia’s White Grass Ski Touring Center (304-866-4114; www.whitegrass.com). New Mexico’s Enchanted Forest, for instance, rents skis, and their instructors will teach you how to glide on them through 540 acres of groomed tracks in the Carson National Forest ($40 for pass, rentals and lessons; 800-966-9381; www.enchantedforestxc.com). Try the sport for free at one of more than 100 locations on this year’s Winter Trails Day, January 7 (www.wintertrails.org).

How to Train: If you’re a runner, your endurance is well suited to cross-country skiing. To prepare, lengthen the duration of your aerobic base training by upping your weekly mileage or spending 10 extra minutes a day on the treadmill. Or follow the lead of U.S. Olympic cross-country skiers. Most of their training time is dedicated to endurance work, but this past summer, while training for the Winter Games to be held in Torino, team members did strength work twice a week and intensity workouts three times a week. Their strength work focused on the arms and core, and the intensity work helped develop the cardiovascular system for the bursts of energy required to charge up a hill or across the finish line.

If you live far from snow, a set of classic all-terrain, or CAT, skis (see www.planetxc.com) can help your gliding skills.

Physical benefits: Cardio fitness and a calorie blast: According to the American Council on Exercise, a 140-pound cross-country skier burns 528 calories an hour — the highest amount of any aerobic activity.

Sarah Tuff is a freelance writer in Burlington, Vt. She's written for The New York Times, National Geographic Adventure, Men's Journal and Skiing.

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