Kirkby in it for the long haul
16-year-old from Ray Brook putting in her time for USA Luge team
SARANAC LAKE — Sophie Kirkby has been riding on a luge sled for half her life. And the resident of Ray Brook, who just turned 16 earlier this week, appears to be in it for the long haul.
After competing on European tracks for the first time this past winter, Kirkby is hoping to keep climbing the ladder toward the top of the United States women’s rankings and hopefully earn a trip to a future Olympic Winter Games as a competitor in women’s singles luge.
Growing up in the Olympic Region, Kirkby had easy access to the track at Mount Van Hoevenberg just a few miles away from her home. And the fact that her father Bob did some bobsledding with the Air Force on the mountain during the 1970s may have also helped lead her onto the ice as a youngster.
In eight years, Kirkby has evolved from a kid looking for some new winter fun to one of the top 10 female luge racers in the country. Her biggest race to date took place during the first week of February, when she represented the United States at the FIL Junior World Championships in Sigulda, Latvia.
“I got into the sport with club luge in Lake Placid,” Kirkby said. “You can go slide on weekends and that’s what I did starting at 8. I did it for fun, to try a new sport.”
Kirkby recalled that her first trip down the track, which began at start No. 5, wasn’t very fun, and was quite a bumpy ride. But ever since, the road, as well as the ice, has gotten smoother. It’s a path that so far has taken her to compete on tracks across Europe as a member of the USA Luge Youth A squad, and ultimately, the U.S. Junior World Team earlier this year.
Kirkby described the memories of her initial experience on the track when she spoke to the Enterprise earlier this week.
“On the first run I was going through (Curve) 12, and I was thinking ‘OK, this isn’t that bad.’ Curve 13, 14 and then into the Chicain — bang, bang. I hit each wall four times, and then I go though 17, 18 and up 19, and I said ‘I hate this. I hate this sport.’ After I’m done, my dad asks ‘How was it Soph?’ and I say ‘Good.’
“I lied to him and I just had to try it again. I did it again, and I just kept coming because I wanted to impress him,” she continued. “I really started liking it. It’s really fun how fast you go, and it’s fun to travel and compete.”
Although Kirkby finally got the opportunity to compete in Europe, the two months she spent with the American junior lugers overseas wasn’t the first time she spent abroad. The daughter of a Russian mother, Kirkby spent two years living in Moscow when she was very young, and she also traveled to Italy as a 12-year-old.
But this past winter, iconic tracks such as Koenigssee, Altenberg, Winterberg, Igls and the run in Latvia became familiar venues that Kirkby hopes to compete at for years to come.
In her first crack at sliding on tracks that were brand new to her as a competitor on the FIL junior circuit for sliders 18 and under, Kirkby showed promise. And at the junior world championships, she did well enough on her first run to qualify for a second trip and wound up finishing the race in 21st place against the world’s best women sliders under the age of 20.
What may be even more impressive, is that Kirkby finished ranked 10th in the world among Youth A athletes.
USA junior luge coach Fred Zimny said he likes the potential and work ethic Kirkby has displayed so far.
“She’s actually a very good example where were trying to move with in the organization as a whole,” Zimny said. “She has all those years under her belt, she’s a hard worker in the offseason, she’s very strong and she’s dedicated. She went to Europe for the very first time with the junior team, and that’s always the hardest season. You go to tracks for the first time, you get in eight runs and then it’s competition. It’s always an uphill struggle the first year sliding on tracks they’ve never seen.
“Sophie did better than I expected,” he continued. “She took to the tracks very quickly. She had her growing pains on the tracks, but by (runs) six, seven, eight, she was consistent.”
Zimny described one of Kirkby’s biggest assets as a young luge slider is how comfortable she is on the sled.
“She is very consistent with her position,” Zimny said. “You can’t drive the sled, you can’t be successful without a good position. Balance is half the battle, and she always has consistent position on the sled.”
“You have to be relaxed,” Kirkby said describing part of the formula for a fast, clean run. “Sometimes you can lose focus and that’s when you have a bad run.”
Kirkby said she visualizes being an Olympian someday, but also said there is a plan B if her Olympic dream doesn’t turn into a reality.
“She just needs more seat time, more experience,” Zimny said. “Sophie getting to the Olympics someday, that’s not out the question. She certainly has the potential.”
Depending on how the careers of some of her older USA Luge teammates unfold, Kirkby’s first real opportunity to compete on the world’s biggest stage in the sport would be in China at the 2022 Olympic Winter Games.
“I want to see where the sport goes, and if I become successful great,” she said. “If by any chance, something goes wrong, I’ll just continue with my education and go to college. I’ve thought about going to Beijing in 2022. I’ll be about 20 years old, which is when some people go to the Olympics. I’ve been thinking ‘Yeah, I might have a shot at that.'”
Kirkby just completed her sophomore year of high school at Saranac Lake, and will be taking a math class this summer to make her load a little lighter when she begins her 2017-18 season of competition. In addition to training, traveling and competing during the winter, Kirkby continues her high school studies, with a lot of that work and interaction with teachers taking place over the internet.