8:35 PM EDT, October 27, 2012
Tucker West's house was one of those places you begged your parents to go when you were a kid.
When Tucker was about 6 years old, he and his dad, Brett, watched luge in the Olympics and thought it was really cool. So Brett set out to make sort of a luge run in their backyard in Ridgefield.
The Wests live on a ridge in Ridgefield, perfect for luge. The first few years, Brett just built a sledding hill. Then he put some curves in and iced it, so it would be faster.
"One year, I spent a ton of time on it, all night long, packing down snow, icing it," Brett said. "After three days of building it, we had a warm spell. The whole thing melted.
"Then I thought I'd build a wood track."
Brett got a little carried away.
"We built this monstrosity," he said. "We had lights, a radar gun, a PA system. Timing. We used to run competitions on it."
The run is still there, but Tucker, 17, is not. He's in Lake Placid this weekend, competing in the Norton USA Luge National Championships, the first competition of the long winter season. Tucker tied for the gold medal Saturday, an auspicious beginning for someone who hopes to be a member of the U.S. luge team at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
He is one of two Connecticut residents who hope to make the team.
The other, Emily Sweeney of Suffield, is coming back from a shoulder injury and had a tough race Saturday. She was third after the first heat Friday behind Olympians Erin Hamlin and Julia Clukey, but did not finish Saturday's race after crashing in the next to last curve of the track.
Sweeney, who is 19, has more international experience. In 2010, she came close to making it to the Vancouver Games. She had to race against her older sister, Megan, and another athlete, Kate Hanson of California, for the final spot on the U.S. team. Megan won and Emily was second. Megan spent 11 years competing and retired after the Olympics.
Now everybody's starting to think about the Olympics again.
"It's lingering in the air," Emily said last week by phone from Lake Placid. "At least for me. Next year this time will be the start of it again. It's what we work for."
"That's all they're thinking," Brett West said. "It's not as early as you think. A year plus three months."
Both Tucker and Emily are juniors, but Emily (in her last year as a junior) has raced a number of times on the senior circuit. Tucker will likely move up this year. The two are headed to Sochi this week to train with the team at the Olympic venue.
Tucker outgrew his backyard track when he was 9 and he and his dad joined the Adirondack Luge Club in Lake Placid. Both Brett and Tucker competed. Brett still competes, in masters luge.
"When I was 11, [the USA Luge] 'Slider Search' came to my hometown," Tucker said last week by phone from Lake Placid. "I tried out and they liked what they saw. I had been sliding with the [Adirondack] club for two years.
"I've been working my way up through the system."
He's been away from his home for long stretches of time since he was 11. He's used to it now.
"It's been an amazing experience," he said. "Sometimes, it's hard. You get homesick every once in a while."
This summer, Emily went to basic training as part of the Army's World Class Athlete Program. If she is accepted into the program, her job will essentially to be to compete.
Basic training, at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, was interesting.
"I learned how to be a soldier," Emily said. "It was challenging but I got through it. The hardest part for me was dealing with getting yelled at and not being able to stand up for myself. Even if you're right, you're wrong. You've got to grin and bear it. But there's no grinning.
"I'm a happy person. I got a lot of 'Put your teeth away.' There's no smiling when you're in the Army."
Last year, Emily's best finish was 11th on the senior circuit and this year, her goal is to finish in the top 10 in a race.
Three men and three women will make the U.S. Olympic team. Emily and Tucker are both in the mix.
"It would be fun if Connecticut could have two of them," Brett West said.
Copyright © 2013, The Hartford Courant