Local teen slides onto the world luge scene
NEW HAVEN / LAKE PLACID, N.Y. — Returning to school can be tough for some students, but for 17-year-old Elijah Pedriani, walking the halls of Mount Abraham Union High School, swapping high-fives and hugs with friends, felt great, he said.
“I was definitely missing them,” the New Haven resident said shortly after his recent return to the Bristol high school, where he is a junior. “And apparently they were missing me, too.”
As a luger for the U.S. Luge Team, Pedriani lives half of the year in the world of a professional athlete, training at facilities in Lake Placid, N.Y., and competing internationally with his country’s colors stitched on his uniform. The other part of the year, he’s simply a high school student with interests in engineering and rowing.
“I used to dread coming back (home) because I loved (training at the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid),” he said. “I didn’t want to leave. Now, I’m on the road so much, and, while I don’t take it for granted, it is nice to come home. I kind of like living the normal life — for a little bit, at least.”
The past six months have been anything but normal for Pedriani as his high-speed exploits in luge have taken him from Addison County to British Columbia, Germany and beyond.
OFF AND RUNNING
Luge is a one- or two-person winter sporting event where competitors sled — face up and feet first — down a mountain on a twisting track made of ice. Lugers compete against the clock and are timed to the thousandth of a second, making it one of the most accurately timed sports in the world.
Like countless other kids in Vermont, Pedriani grew up sledding on snowy hillsides around his home. After watching the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver he expressed interest in the sport to his mother, Valerie Pedriani. She saw an ad for the USA Luge Slider Search, the official nationwide recruitment tour for USA Luge, which targets young athletes ages 10-13. In July 2010, Elijah and his mother drove to the free event in Plattsburgh, N.Y., where he and a group of kids rode modified sleds down a local hill.
Pedriani still recalls that first descent at 20 miles per hour.
“I had a huge smile on my face,” he said. “I didn’t know what I was doing, I was weaving through the cones I didn’t know anything about the sport I was just having so much fun.”
A group of athletes and coaches observed the youngsters’ handling and turning abilities. The most promising riders were invited to screening camps at Lake Placid, where prospective athletes went through more rigorous testing, including workouts and starts. They also rode on a real luge track for the first time. Pedriani doesn’t remember his first time sliding on a real track, but his performance clearly impressed the coaches. After passing the camps, he competed in his first race and was named to the Junior National Development Team. He was in seventh grade.
As he’s progressed, Pedriani has had to spend extended periods away from home and school. While away for as long as four months at a time, he completes assignments for classes and collaborates with his teachers.
“Thankfully, Mount Abe really has been there with me since day one,” he said.
In eighth grade, Pedriani was named to the Junior National Traveling Candidate Team, a team of eight that graduates into higher levels. This year, instead of traveling to facilities at Lake Placid, he was invited to compete internationally.
Starting in October, Pedriani’s season sent him to tracks in Park City, Utah; Calgary, Alberta; and Whistler, British Columbia. During a swing through Europe, he competed in Lillehammer, Norway; Oberhof, Germany; and Igls, Austria. Every track is different, so lugers will discuss with their coaches the most efficient line to follow down the mountain.
“It never comes together perfectly, and that’s why it’s such a great sport — the pursuit of that perfect line.”
Pedriani’s top speed is 87 miles per hour, faster than most people drive their cars. Olympians go as fast as 110 mph, but Pedriani says when traveling the distance of over a mile in under 45 seconds it’s sometimes hard to know just how fast he’s traveling. Pedriani’s eyes grow wide as he recalls the sensation.
“When you’re going those speeds during races you can get lost in time,” he said. “Time can vanish and you get lost in the track. What only to the public is 45 seconds vanishes. When you hit that line, you feel like you’re flying.”
And then come the corners. Entering corners at speeds of nearly 90 miles per hour, lugers can experience forces of to five times the force of gravity as they whip through the hairpin turns. In Lillehammer when he took his run, Pedriani got a sense of how fast he was going when he slammed through a series of turns at the bottom; he was rattled but there was no choice but to continue.
“I knew I was in a race so I knew I had to keep driving those lines,” he said.
When he finally stopped at the bottom, he was shaking.
In addition to the thrill of competing on a world stage, Pedriani also experienced international travel. Traveling to small villages in some remote regions of northern Europe, he heard other languages like Norwegian, German, Czech and Italian and smelled local food cooking. While he wasn’t able to do much sightseeing, the experience was fully immersive for the young traveler.
The world of luge is dominated by a handful of countries, with Norway, Germany, Austria, Italy and Russia developing some of the fastest lugers in the world. The Americans have been improving and this year, a lone Australian made an attempt at the podium. By the end of the season Pedriani finished third in the Youth A division for the entire world.
Pedriani came home to Vermont around Christmas for two weeks, then left again for Europe in early January.
While away, he kept in touch with his family via Skype. It was during the second stretch away from home he started to develop homesickness. Coming home to New Haven, he said was a welcome break.
A ONE-OF-A-KIND OPPORTUNITY
At 17, Pedriani’s taken on the life of a professional athlete, a commitment that can sometimes weigh heavily on him. His goals are to eventually attend college and pursue a career as an engineer, but with so much traveling and training, it can be difficult to maintain a competitive grade point average. Sometimes he wishes he could have a “normal” high school experience, but reminds himself that opportunities to compete internationally don’t often present themselves.
“I know I’m not going to get this experience ever again,” he said. “Meanwhile, school and college are always out there. For now, I’m loving the life I’m living right now.”
Pedriani is taking the month of April off to catch up on school and rest before he starts his training again. He’s moving up to a new class next season and will compete against athletes that are older and more experienced. In addition to training, he’ll have to gain about 25 pounds. His mother is helping with some of the dietary portions and he works with a trainer to develop a fitness regimen. In the spring, summer and fall, he’ll go to Lake Placid for physical fitness tests.
As he looks forward to next season, Pedriani isn’t placing any high goals for himself. Instead, he just wants to try his hardest.
“I’m going into next season with an open mind,” he said. “I’m going to be working really hard and I just hope my hard work pays off. I’m just going to go in there and see how I do against the world.”
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