In the weeks after St. Dominic’s High School alumnus and Olympic luger Matt Mortensen left the Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, he was most likely to be found on a beach in Hawaii, he said, decompressing from his second Olympics.
For the 32-year-old, however, his trip to the tropics was about more than relaxation. In a phone call from the Olympic Village, he said, “It’s time for me to think about what lies ahead for my future. I’m going to take the next month to sit back and consider my options.”
He added, “This is probably my last Games.”
Mortensen, who grew up in Huntington Station, first became interested in luge when he was around 12. His father’s employer, Verizon, put out word to its employees that it was looking for young athletes to try their hand at this relatively obscure sport. Verizon, Mortensen explained, was the main sponsor of luge in the U.S. at the time, and while scouting out fresh talent, the company found him.
“I remember it feeling so fast and so exciting,” he said of his early days of learning the sport. But more than the exhilaration of a run, “It was more or less a bonding thing for me and my dad.”
Luge is one of three main sled sports, along with bobsled and skeleton. The luger — or lugers, in the case of a doubles team — lies on a flat sled, feet first, face up, and uses his or her calf muscles to steer by controlling the “runners,” two angled blades that make contact with the icy, winding track.
Lugers can reach speeds of almost 100 mph, and at those speeds, Mortensen said, precision is everything. Adjusting the luge’s runners by just a millimeter before a run can make a difference of a tenth of a second. For reference, in the final run of the Pyeongchang men’s singles luge, the slowest of 20 competitors finished within one second of the fastest. The millimeters matter.
It was a strategic decision about those millimeters that led to what, on paper, could appear to be a lackluster end of a career. “In doubles,” Mortensen’s main event, he said, “my teammate Jason [Terdiman] and I got 10th.”
Looking at the racers who had gone before them, the duo knew there was a limit as to how well they could do in the doubles race. In their first heat, they came in 6th, just four tenths of a second behind the German team who took first.
They decided to make a last minute adjustment between runs. “It was about getting it solid for the relay [the following day] and increasing our chances of taking home a medal.” So, to reduce friction, he lowered the angle of the runners by about a millimeter.
Because they hadn’t had a chance to practice with the new runner configuration, the team had a little more trouble steering. For their second heat, they came in 13th, five tenths of a second behind the leading team.
The team did well in the relay, missing the bronze medal by under one tenth of a second. “The first part of our 3-leg relay team had a bit of a slow start, and that’s tough to recover from,” Mortensen said.
He has been competing in luge since 2000, when he was 15-years-old. The intense training schedule made it impossible for him to attend school full time, as most other teenagers his age do. He and his family worked out an arrangement with the teachers and administrators at St. Dominic’s to make sure he didn’t have to choose between his passion and his education.
“We had to really sit down and figure out how to do this,” Tim Homan, Mortensen’s old social studies teacher said. “It took extra effort on the teachers here. I would probably have to sit down for four hours or so every weekend to plan out the next two weeks.”
Homan added that as challenging as it was for him and his colleagues to make the arrangement work, “Between his training and the work we were sending him, [Mortensen] had a very arduous workload.”
Mortensen said he was grateful for the effort his teachers put in. “Without their help,” he said, “I wouldn’t have successfully completed my education when I was younger.” He added that he knew several athletes who couldn’t work out a similar situation with their home schools and ended up dropping out.
The 2018 Winter Olympics were the 32-year-old luger’s 20th year in the sport, and his second Olympics. “As a first time Olympian put it today,” he said, for someone’s first games, “everything’s sparkly.” As a returning competitor, he said, “This Olympics is a bit different” from his first, in Sochi, Russia. “I just came into it a little more with sober eyes.”