LAKE PLACID - "Attention, clear the track," announces a man over the PA system. "The track is now clear from the finish to start 5 for Ava." Boop!
And with that Ava Day, 8, of Lake Placid, decked out in a helmet and her purple one-piece luge suit, pushes off the start handles at curve 12 of the combined track at Mount Van Hoevenberg, accelerating down the ice track in a laying down position before turning a curve and disappearing from view.
Day, along with a core group of 11 other children ranging in ages from 8 to 12, are taking part in a new USA Luge Association program called Learn to Luge.
Fred Zimny, recruitment and sport development manager for USA Luge, instructs Becca Hass of Lake Placid before one of her luge runs at the Mount Van Hoevenberg combined track in Lake Placid.
(Photo for the Enterprise — Margaret Moran)
"It's designed to just foster interest of younger kids in the sport of luge," said Fred Zimny, recruitment and sports development manager for USA Luge. "Some of these kids live a couple miles away from the track and they've probably never been out here before, so we want to get kids out to these great facilities that we have in Lake Placid."
For Becca Hass, 12, of Lake Placid, the afternoon was her first time luging, but she's no stranger when it comes to sliding sports. She said she has participated in bobsled and skeleton, but luge still proved to be a challenge.
Hass described her first run as "rough. I almost crashed, but it's kind of fun because of how fast you go."
Of the three Olympic sliding sports - bobsled, skeleton and luge - luge is the fastest, with its athletes being able to reach speeds of 87 mph. But the children don't reach speeds anywhere near that.
Zimny said from start 5 at the combined track, the program's participants "maybe" reach 25 mph. "It's not real fast from here."
But it still proves thrilling for the kids.
Max Gole, 9, of Lake Placid, described luge runs as "a thrill rush."
Selena Jeskanen, 9, of Peru, who has been involved in luge for two years, said she likes the sport "because I'm going fast."
Jeskanen's father, Sami Jeskanen, said he wasn't nervous when his daughter wanted to try the sport.
"After watching him (her brother) do it and then coming here always with her to watch him, I wasn't nervous, but my wife was at first," he said. "But it's quite an experience for her and she does well."
But children having fun is the main focus of the program.
"At this younger age, you just want the kids having fun," Zimny said. "Of course, our long-term goal is to keep them in the program and keep working them up to in 10 years our national team and maybe an Olympic team one day."
When asked, Selena nodded her head in agreement that she would like to eventually compete in the Olympics.
"She says she wants to go to the Olympics, but it's just for fun at her age right now," Sami said. "Nothing too serious. It just gives us something to do, it gets us outside, exercise and doing something very unique."
Bill Gole, Max's father, echoed that sentiment.
"I just think it's another activity that gives him an opportunity to get self-confidence, exercise and probably with the off chance that he stays with it, maybe to be competitive in it," he said. "It's just a positive experience for him in every way. And the truth of the matter is occasionally they do crash, but even that isn't a bad thing. You pick yourself up, dust yourself off and go back up to the top."
Max said he has crashed about four times usually in the shicane, the straightaway, in the three months he's been doing luge.
"If you have a sled that you can't really control - like you can control (it), but it's sort of hard to control, you might bounce around a little (in the shicane)," he said.
Day said she likes sliding on the track's curves the most.
"I like the curves because they just kind of guide you and you don't really have to steer a lot," she said.
Zimny said by starting from curve 12, the children get to experience seven curves along with a straightaway, and helping them to navigate the track properly are the coaches.
At practice, Zimny talked to each child at the starting-off point before he or she went down the track, providing tips, instruction and positive words.
"The coaching has been outstanding," Bill said. "They're really good with the kids, and they've done a good job of not only finding ice time for them, but also encouraging them and doing some real coaching."
Practices are held usually twice a week - Tuesdays and Thursdays - at the combined track, which will continue at the track into April.
"We continue it into the summertime," Zimny said. "We put wheels on these same sleds and we have a hill in Lake Placid that we do the same program. We do it Tuesdays and Thursdays and kids come to slide on wheels, so it's a winter and summer sport."
The program is open to any child between the ages of 8 and 12 and is free.
"The program is free," Zimny said. "That's the best part. All the equipment, everything is free."
Anyone interested in the program can call Zimny at 518-523-2071, ext. 105.
"We're looking for more than just Lake Placid (residents)," he said. "We want to reach out to the whole region, not just Lake Placid."