Local lugers take up unlikely sport, compete in national event at Lake Placid | Local Sports
Imagine walking into the cafeteria and Michael Phelps standing in front of you at lunchtime. Now imagine that as a middle school student.
This is a little glimpse into the lives of two young Lancaster County luge athletes, Kendall Achen and Hayes Carlson.
Team USA’s luge facilities are located in Lake Placid, New York. There Kendall, 13, and Hayes, 11, also exercise. Both regularly encounter Olympic athletes in everyday activities.
While both youngsters casually said, “Yeah, that’s pretty cool,” Hayes’ father, Les Carlson, had a lot more to say.
“When I was up there and seeing all the other Olympians, I kind of got dizzy,” he said. “I was like, ‘Hey, that’s the guy from TV!’ So I can’t imagine what Hayes must have felt.”
On March 4-5, Kendall and Hayes competed in the Norton USA Luge Youth Nationals at Mount Van Hoevenberg in Lake Placid.
Hayes, a seventh grader at Lancaster County Christian School, finished second in each of the youth B races that weekend and finished second overall. It’s also worth noting that the Silver medalist had the fastest start times in three of the weekend’s four races.
Kendall, an eighth grader from Manheim Central Middle School, finished fifth on the first day of competition and seventh on the second, finishing sixth overall. Considering that she competed in the Youth A group against athletes two years her senior, sixth place was a very special one strong finish. In fact, the reason Kendall, who has a spot on USA Luge’s development team, competed in the older age division was because of her advanced skills.
She improved dramatically from the previous season after gaining 20 pounds and 3.5 inches during the offseason. Previously, she had been the smallest athlete on the development team.
Introduction to the sport
But how did the two come to this extremely unconventional sport in the first place?
The simple answer has to do with watching the Winter Olympics and wanting to try the sport.
The more interesting answer however, begins with White Castle – yes, the burger chain.
White Castle sponsors the Team USA Luge “Slider Search,” in which Team USA travels across the country in search of potential new athletes. From a typically large pool of athletes, the initial number is narrowed down from a few hundred to around 50.
Those 50 or so will be invited to a summer program at one of three US-approved training sites. Different years, Kendall and Hayes were invited to a summer program at Lake Placid. After this program, the pool will be further narrowed down from around 50 athletes to under 10.
Kendall’s involvement in luge comes from her mother, Stacy Achen. The sport is a bit family – Stacy is related to four-time Olympic luge champion Erin Hamlin. Kendall first took part in a Slider search in September 2019 in her parents’ hometown of Utica, New York.
As for Hayes, for about two years he and his family lived in Switzerland, where the Winter Olympics are more popular than in the United States. Hayes said he and his family watch the Winter Olympics “religiously.”
The common theme between Kendall and Hayes is that both said, “Why not?” when they heard they could try the sport.
“It doesn’t cost anything. All you need is a pair of jeans, a shirt and a willingness to learn,” Hayes said.
Having followed the sport for most of his life, he felt last fall’s Slider quest was his chance. An opportunity not only to try something new, but possibly his only chance as he wasn’t sure when another opportunity would arise.
Everyone was pleasantly surprised by the selection. Kendall said she was shocked as she was still somewhat unfamiliar with the ins and outs of the sport at the time. Hayes read his acceptance letter and took a moment to process what he read. So does his father.
“When I first read it, I had to read it through a couple of times to make sure it was real,” Les Carlson said.
Stacy Achen, on the other hand, was more than happy for her daughter.
“It’s a big deal,” she said. “That’s the national level.”
Both young athletes were selected for screening, but the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily halted Kendall’s race for Team USA. It was nearly two years after her initial acceptance that she was able to attend the Lake Placid screening camp.
“It was pretty boring year,” Kendall said.
She was only able to train once a month to stay ready for screening camp. Her mother said they were lucky enough to live in a state bordering New York during the pandemic. If they hadn’t, Kendall might not have been able to train as often as they did.
The 2022 season also went abnormally. The national championships were held in Park City, Utah, a track completely different and unfamiliar to Kendall. Unable to fly to Utah regularly, she was only able to train on this course a week before the competition.
The break in the training schedule might not seem like much from the outside, but Hayes put it into perspective.
“The training is very demanding, both physically and mentally. It’s a long day,” he said. “Usually we have 10-hour training days and then another hour or two for homework.”
Hayes is in Lake Placid for at least four weeks of winter training, in addition to one week in the summer and one week in the fall, his father said. As Hayes advances to the global competitive teams he would compete with in Europe and Asia, that time commitment would increase significantly.
Les Carlson said if his son is in Lake Placid for training, it will be in a week or two Blocks. For example, he said Hayes’ schedule around the national championships was one week at Lake Placid, one week at home, then another week at Lake Placid, with racing at the end of that week.
Whenever he’s there, Hayes resides at the Olympic Training Center, although USA Luge also has an additional facility at the Mount Van Hoevenberg track that’s open for training year-round.
Similarly, Stacy Achen said that Kendall is typically there for five to six weeks in the fall and winter to train with the development team. In January alone she was in Lake Placid for two weeks, went home for a week and then back to Placid for another two weeks.
In the summer, Stacy Achen said, Kendall will train “on wheels” for a week, and while there’s no ice on the track, the athletes will slide down on sleds, and additionally work on their conditioning and begin training.
Ultimately, the time invested and the opportunity to work regularly in their hometown led to solid success for both young athletes – and hope for more.