Naturally Awesome

Thirteen is unlucky for some, but for 13 RAF athletes taking part in the Natural Luge RAF Championships 2013, with temperature as low as -13°C degrees; skill, not luck was the order of the day.

All 13 enthusiastic personnel from bases including RAF Benson, Corsham, Cranwell, Episkopi, Leeming, Marham and Wittering took part in this years RAF Natural Luge Ice Camp and with speeds topping 70 KPH and just centimetres from the ice a strong nerve was required. Ice tracks are relatively narrow, carved naturally into a valley within the mountains and the track in Lusen Italy is horded by unforgiving wooden boards; there is no room for error but the rewards are exhilarating. Natural Luge is more aggressive than its sister sport Artificial/Olympic Luge, which is run on the bob track; although Natural Luge is easier to come to grips with, as the driver can break with ice spikes in their boots to control their speed. Handy when you are just starting out!

Leaving the UK with snow on the ground and sub zero temperatures it set the scene for the coming week. Nine personnel took the epic two day road trip to transport the kit out to Italy, picking up the remaining four personnel from Innsbruck airport. Arriving at the hotel late in the evening, there was no time to delay and it was straight into sled preparation and getting safety kit issued for the next day. Sleds, safety padding and boots with spikes were issued to the athletes. Training consists of only four hours per day, which sounds like an easy time, but not so! The nature of the sport limits your time on the ice due to the physical demands and concentration levels that are required, which challenge the most dedicated athletes. The sled preparation is a steep learning curve and very time consuming, occupying any free time you thought you might have. Day one on the ice and you could feel the anticipation in the air as all the athletes confronted the contours of the track and the quality of the ice on the first morning. All were apprehensive as to what to expect having watched the video clips on the GB Luge Facebook page, they all knew that there would be lots of bruises and aches & pains, however, with that old adage “no pain no gain” the week did not disappoint!

Luge how hard can it be?… It certainly looks easy on the poster, sitting on a tea tray and sliding down an ice track, what a mistake to make! Flt Lt Eddy Dunlop the coach, started off the training by giving instructions, kufon, blades, right turn lift legs; so much to learn. The ice looked daunting but you get to love it in the end. SAC Matt Clayton came into the sport with expectations of it being as easy as Eddy made it look. However, after the warm up and first set of lessons it was time to take to the ice. After his first run he had a bigger understanding of what was expected. Thankfully the brilliant instruction and helpful team members made him more comfortable on the ice and every run became increasingly enjoyable.

Cpl John Mitchell who was a big lad and caused problems from the start with equipment, due to it being such a struggle to find a sled to fit him, along with size 12 shoes which is not the usual size of a Luge athlete. However, this was a minor detail because Mitch used his size and strength to intimidate the ice. As he developed his own style, akin to a tank commander; he mastered the basics to entertain all when he was on the track. Even the Italian coach from the Federation of International Luge took the time out of his busy schedule to come across to Lusen and pass on his knowledge. With instructions lost in translation ‘kaput’ and ‘very good’ were our markers as to if we were doing it right or not. We were extremely fortunate to have a senior Italian join us for two days to impart his wealth of technical knowledge and at least we all made him smile with some adventurous sliding.

Not wanting to seem ageist, coach Flt Lt Eddy Dunlop agreed to take on a challenge in the guise of two Flight Sergeants (FS Lenny ice scraper Mcknight & Dave Bunn) but despite their over 50 age tags, they put in maximum effort and even gave some of the youngsters a run for their money! At times trying to control the sled in a straight line was hard enough, let alone getting round corners and this was evident from the expression on Dave’s face. However, with track time and constant tuition they progressed and were able to do a run with little bumps along the way… honestly!

Natural Luge is an experience not for the faint hearted but it is extremely rewarding. After four days of training for the RAF Championships finished with Flt Lt Dunlop taking first place with a time of 47 seconds, in second place was SAC Sam Bud and in third SAC Dave Clayton. The RAF Novice champion was won by SAC Dave Clayton with LAC Dex Unwin in second place and an amazing run for third place for Cpl John Mitchell in third.

The sense of achievement when the athletes manage their first clean run from top to bottom is amazing. The sport provides some emotional moments whilst trying to learn the Luge, but after the four days of ups and downs all the athletes’ had a big sense of achievement as confidence and technique improved along with the buzz of going faster. After an amazing week, with great company and the experience of doing a fantastic high speed technical sport, we all agreed bring on 2014!

Cpl Kev Holes has experienced both types of Luge and he said that “I can safely say the week did not disappoint. It was an extremely demanding week, but because of the very progressive training and a great bunch of people, the experience was really enjoyable. A fantastic experience that you will find very difficult to beat in any sport and despite singlehandedly wrecking most of the snow banks around the course I will be one of the first putting my name forward for next years championships.”

The 13 athletes were fortunate enough to have the opportunity to see how it really should be done and visited the 19th FIL World Championships on the natural track in Deutschnofen/Nova Ponente Italy. It was amazing to see the professionals at work with 21 nations competing and they even had the GBR flag flying despite no representation from Britain this year. Flt Lt Eddy Dunlop was pounced on as soon as we arrived to enquire why he was not competing, but he soon reassured the FIL that we had three potential athletes’ for the World Circuit next year. Patrick Pigneter (ITA) was triumphant again taking a hat trick of wins in the solo, doubles and team event a first for the sport and he remains at the top of the Natural Luge World Cup leader board. A fantastic experience which rounded off the week perfectly.

If you are interested in the natural Luge, then contact Flt Lt Eddy Dunlop on: 95751 6803. The Street Luge will take place at RAF Halton in October 2013 and provides a taster of the sport; more details will follow later in the year.

Written By: Sqn Ldr Claire Adamson