ESCANABA – A former National Luge Champion from the Upper Peninsula says Arin Hamlin’s bronze medal in the luge competition in Sochi will increase interest in the sport in the U.S. Hamlin was the first American to ever medal in the singles event.
“It’s exciting,” said Keith Whitman. “Once we have broken that barrier, which she has done, hopefully there will be exciting things to come.”
Whitman says the sport has changed dramatically since he started luging in the early 1980s. The big difference is technology.
“Taking nothing away from the young lady, she is surely a good athlete, but it is technology. If you take a look at Germany, you look at Austria, Italy, they have the greatest technology and we are starting to get some,” Whitman said.
He was interested to see that Dow Chemical was involved in the recent designs of the U.S. luge sleds. He says you have a better chance to win if you have technicians involved. Luge is a sport that is separated by 100 thousandth of a second.
Whitman never competed in the Olympics but he holds national championship titles and competed throughout the world including the World Championships and World Cup. His most memorable moment was standing on the Alps in Italy as he got ready to raise the American flag for an opening ceremony.
“And at that moment in my life I thought I’m not representing Keith Whitman. I’m not representing L’Anse where I came from. I’m not representing the U.P. or the state of Michigan. I’m representing the United State of America. There is not a more humbling experience in the world then to stand there for your country and raise your flag,” he said.
Whitman sort of stumbled into the sport. He was running through the woods near Negaunee when he happened upon a man building a trial luge run. The man invited him to come and try the track.
“And that’s all it took, I guess, because I went out there that winter and started training. I started training more and started training more. Then I went to Lake Placid and trained there and then I made the United States Naturbahn Team and went to Europe,” Whitman remembered.
In 1987, Whitman was chosen to go to Greece to attend the International Olympic Academy. He was the first winter athlete from the U.S. chosen to attend the academy. The group lit the torch for the Olympics in Calgary.
He served on the U.S. Luge Governing Board as part of the U.S. Olympic Committee. And he mentored other luge athletes including Wendall Suckow of Marquette who was the first American to win gold at the World Championships.
His achievements were remarkable because he took it hard when as a student in L’Anse he was told by a teacher that he could not chew gum and walk at the same time. But another teacher challenged him to succeed. Whitman says it’s important to instill in young people that anyone can achieve.
“Everyone has the potential to be that Olympic athlete if they want to give. If you want to sacrifice, nobody can say no. No one can shut any door in your life. Only you can shut that door. If you want to achieve, it’s there. You have to be willing to sacrifice,” Whitman said.
He hopes Hamlin’s medal at the Olympics this year brings more young people into the sport including the luge track in Negaunee. Whitman says the Negaunee track is a recruiting ground for future athletes that may someday compete for their country.