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Slip slidin’ away: Lucy Hill lugers take dashed international season in stride

U.S. National Natural Luge head coach Keith Whitman, top left, and team members, front to back, Jacob Sterk, Henry Anderson and Torrie Cookman, watch as Katie Cookman, 13, of Marquette brakes entering a corner on the Lucy Hill luge track in Negaunee. (Escanaba Daily Press photo by Todd Rose)

“We’re still able to train during the winter and get up on higher portions of the track.” — Torrie Cookman, 16-year-old Marquette luger, on the canceled international luge season

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NEGAUNEE — In a normal year, the U.S. National Natural Luge team would now be miles away from their home Lucy Hill track in Negaunee competing in Europe.

This year, riding on the coattails of the coronavirus pandemic year of 2020, has been anything but normal. Especially for Upper Peninsula lugers.

Instead of sliding down tracks on a different continent, the team is stuck at home. While some teams may get down about not having the chance to compete, the lugers are using it as a valued experience.

Torrie Cookman, 16, of Marquette leans into a turn to help steer his way down the Lucy Hill track in Negaunee recently. (Escanaba Daily Press photo by Todd Rose)

“I was super bummed about not going, but I’ve decided to look at it in more of a positive way,” said 16-year-old Torrie Cookman of Marquette, who is in his sixth year of luging. “Unlike many of the other countries around the world, we have this world-class track in our backyard. We have the people who are willing to make the track. So we’re still able to train during the winter and get up on higher portions of the track.

“By being able to train on this track here, I think we’ll still be able to be very competitive next year in Europe. It’s also kind of fun to be up at the top of this track because it is a hard track.”

Cookman initially became involved with the luge program through a Cub Scout outing, then again through a school trip. The same luging bug that bit him also bit his sister, Katie.

“Since Torrie was out here because of Boy Scouts, I was just always out here,” Katie Cookman said. “Then, a few years after (seeing) him sliding, I decided I should try sliding, and I really liked it.”

At just 13 years old, Katie is already in her third year of sliding. Like her brother, she also relishes the opportunity to learn more about the world-class Negaunee track.

Katie Cookman, 13, of Marquette holds out her arm to help steer her way down the Lucy Hill track in Negaunee recently. (Escanaba Daily Press photo by Todd Rose)

Starting his fourth year of luging is Henry Anderson, a 15-year-old from Appleton, Wisconsin. Unlike the Cookman siblings, Anderson discovered natural luge after becoming involved in artificial luge.

“They have the artificial luge, which is what you see in the Olympics, and they have slider searches. They’ll come out to towns, and you’ll do a wheeled clinic,” Anderson said. “So I started getting into artificial luge, but (it) being in New York (at Lake Placid), it wasn’t really a feasible option.

“My dad ended up knowing about this area, so I started to get involved here and ended up really liking this more than artificial. I’ve just gone on from there.”

Another teen, 14-year-old Jacob Sterk of Minneapolis — who is at the start of his second year — followed a similar path to Anderson.

“It was the same thing as Henry,” Sterk said. “I started in a slider search in Minneapolis, then went to New York and ended up just finding out about this place and came here.”

When it comes to competing, one thing the team does not take lightly is representing their country.

“When you’re over there, it’s definitely a different feeling because you’re with a lot of different countries, and it’s kind of a big responsibility,” Anderson said. “You want to make sure you’re respectful over there and aware of everyone else just trying to make a good name for the U.S. because it is kind of a big deal.”

Torrie Cookman echoed Anderson’s thoughts but brought up other groups the team is representing abroad.

“Not only are we representing the U.S., we are also representing the U.P. Luge Club,” Torrie Cookman said. “When we’re in Europe, we’re with the FIL, which is a luging team for the underdeveloped luge countries, which the U.S. is part of.

“So, we’re not only representing the U.S. but the FIL group, which is a geographically large team.”

While Anderson and Torrie Cookman have been able to travel to and compete in Europe, Sterk and Katie Cookman are still waiting for their chance to make the trip. It’s something they both look forward to.

“I am super excited to go over, just to like learn the cultures, get better at luge, learn different tracks, meet new people from different places,” Katie Cookman said.

Sterk, too, is anxious for the experience.

“I am more excited to just meet people, have fun with the team and just compete against other countries.”

Unlike artificial luge, natural luge provides a unique challenge for sliders.

“With artificial luge, all the corners are banked. So, you steer, but you don’t move your body much when you’re steering,” Torrie Cookman said. “In natural luge, the track is flat, so we really have to move our body, our arms and legs to go around the corners. We also have to brake to slow down to get around the corners because it’s not just a banked corner we can ride up.

“Also, we have to deal with different track conditions,” he said. “I’ve been luging when it’s 50 degrees out, so you have to adjust your sled to the temperature. I’ve also been luging when it’s zero degrees out, and you have to adjust for that, too.”

And it’s not just the physical aspects that make natural luge unique, as Henry Anderson points out.

“On top of all the physical challenges, it’s kind of a mental game as well,” he said. “Around every corner, you’re face to face with a wall, and you just have to believe, truly, that you can make it around each corner.”

Making sure the kids have the confidence to make every corner is their coach, Escanaba’s Keith Whitman.

Whitman, a national champion and team captain in the mid-1980s, is in his second stint as head coach of the National Natural Luge Team.

“I coached in ’87 and ’88,” Whitman said. “I gave 110 percent, but my heart wasn’t there. And I stepped out as coach.”

Some 30 years later, Whitman received a phone call after the team’s then-coach was dismissed from the position.

“Two weeks before they were to leave for Europe, they called me to ask (me) to take the team to Europe and coach them … I’ve been head coach going on four years, and it’s been an exciting four years for me.”

The chance to coach young athletes, something he’s done beyond the luge team at Holy Name School, Marquette Senior High School and Escanaba High School, is something Whitman takes great pride in.

“I’m honored to do it,” he said. “To shape and form young men and women, to take them around the world, I wish everyone had that opportunity.”

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