PHOTOS: Kate Hansen comes home to La Cañada with the U.S.A Slider Search clinic
Parallel to the ground with only Kate Hansen and one of her red-white-and-blue Converse keeping them from sliding down the street, eager youngsters gave luge a try for the very first time on the streets of La Cañada Flintridge Saturday and Sunday as the USA Luge Slider Search recruiting clinic came to town.
“I always wanted to try luge and be on the Olympic team,” said 13-year-old Michael O’Gara of La Crescenta.
On their first runs, prospective sliders did their best simply to go straight down the street, but for the likes of Hansen and Fred Zimny, the Slider Search is very much a run that comes full circle.
For the 21-year-old Hansen, her days on a sled began when she was 10 at a Slider Search in Long Beach.
“I was the last one in the group,” said Hansen of becoming the last Californian to date to make the USA Luge squad. “I have a lot of pride in these kids.
“This is for all the West Coast kids that don’t get all the snow.”
Zimny, who oversees the clinics as USA Luge’s manager of recruitment and development, was there in Long Beach when Hansen made her luge debut. He was also there as the first person to put Erin Hamlin, the first American female or male to medal at the Olympics, on a sled.
“It’s a lot of job satisfaction to be the first to put them on a sled and to see them 10 years later be on an Olympics team,” Zimny said.
Roughly three months after the Winter Olympics concluded in Sochi, Russia, which saw Hamlin take bronze and Hansen draw great acclaim as part of the USA luge team, the Slider Search stopped by Hansen’s hometown.
With the fastest sport on ice translating into the fastest clinic on the street, a stretch of Foothill Blvd. adjacent to St. Francis and La Cañada high schools between Daleridge and Viro roads was closed, aligned with hay bales along the sides of the street and cones down the middle.
At the root of it, the Slider Search program is designed to find prospective lugers for the USA Luge developmental program who will possibly make the cut for the national team and, maybe, just maybe, a spot on the Olympics squad one day.
“Kate Hansen is a perfect example,” said Zimny, who arrived Thursday and began setting up the street Friday. “Ninety-nine percent of these kids, this is the beginning and the end of their luge career. For that 1%, that’s what we’re looking for.”
On Saturday and Sunday there were two sessions scheduled each day, morning sessions running from 9 a.m. to roughly 11:30 a.m., before afternoon sessions, with separate participants, began at 2 p.m. and ran to roughly 4 p.m. There is a maximum of 22 kids, ages 9 to 13, set for each session, though Zimny said numbers were a “little disappointing,” but the talent was just the opposite, adding that he was usually fortunate to get one prospect per session, but had three in Saturday’s morning session and, perhaps, an equal number in the afternoon.
Zimny and his staff, which included Hansen, who had coached a “handful” of clinics before, began by going over the finer points of the sled, sled position, starting, stopping and steering before Zimny personally laid them down on the sled. Following that, kids began their runs, starting with a straight line, then adding curves and cones to the equation.
“It’s important they get a grasp,” Zimny said. “It doesn’t get any more beginning than this.”
While safety is paramount and perhaps finding the next Kate Hansen is the ultimate goal, it’s also a fun-filled free ride down a pretty big hill.
“And what kid doesn’t want to lie down on a wheeled thing and go down a hill?” Zimny joked. “Kids love it.”
The very first to sign in for the Saturday afternoon session was 10-year-old Crawford Patten, whose dad, Alan, made a five-hour trek south from Oakland for the clinic.
“We were very much watching the Winter Olympics and Crawford had a fascination with the luge. We started thinking, ‘How do you go about being a kid and becoming an Olympic athlete?’” said Alan Patten about what drove him and his son, literally and figuratively, to attend the Slider Search. “Whether he makes it or not is immaterial, but just a chance to participate in a grass roots thing is special.”
Indeed, it was Crawford’s interest to luge rather than to just watch it on television that served as the greatest inspiration to drive south and slide down a hill.
“I was interested in just how it really felt to do the luge,” Crawford Patten said. “I’ve zoomed down my street like a zillion times.”
While the Pattens likely made the farthest trip, others came from Santa Clarita, Glendora and Yucaipa. And, of course, there were those like O’Gara and 12-year-old Elizabeth Petersen, along with her two brothers, who made shorter trips, also coming from neighboring La Crescenta.
The first Petersen heard of the luge was Hansen.
“I heard about Kate Hansen and that was the thing to talk about,” she said.
But the first Petersen heard of the Slider Search was when her mom told her she had signed her up for it.
“Actually, my mom signed me up without me knowing it and my first expression was, ‘I don’t want to die!’” Petersen said.
But Petersen ended up showing a great deal of potential and came out unscathed, as the majority of the sliders that crashed into hay bales came away with nothing more than smiles.
“It was awesome,” Petersen said.
The La Cañada Slider Search stop was the fourth of seven scheduled for the year, Zimny said, coming two weeks after a stop in the Chicago area. The search is free of charge and all participants get free swag in the form of a T-shirt.
Later Saturday beginning at 6 p.m., adults were welcomed to give luge a shot on the course for $100, with proceeds going to the search and the cost including dinner at Los Gringos Locos, which is owned and operated by the Hansen family, including Kate’s uncle, Bent, who was instrumental in aiding the clinic coming to La Cañada, along with Kate’s mom, Kathie, who stood pat at the bottom of the course, offering help and an encouraging, “Whooo!” to sliders at the finish.
Of course, the Slider Search coming to La Cañada came to be in the aftermath of Kate Hansen’s Olympic run and swell in popularity. Among a cavalcade of accomplishments upon her sled, Hansen was the youngest-ever Junior World Champion at 15, the first United States luger to win a World Cup race in 17 years back in December and took 10th in women’s singles luge in February in the Olympics upon a stage in which her winning smile and pre-luge dancing warm-up made her a star.
Going forward, Hansen, who flew out for the weekend to coach at the clinic, is still amid her sophomore year at Brigham Young University and will forego the upcoming World Cup luge season to concentrate on hitting the books. But Saturday, more than anything, was an opportunity to look back.
“This is where it all began,” she said of the Slider Search. “It’s surreal, especially to do it in my hometown. To do it in my hometown is mind-blowing. It’s a lot of fun.”
Like Zimny, Hansen knows how slim the odds are and, of course, realizes how arduous the journey is to make the national team, much less realize the glory of making the Olympics. But on Saturday, the Slider Search, at the very least, offered a group of youngsters a chance to take a fast and free ride down Foothill Blvd. and, at most, may just have been the first run for an Olympian of the future.
“There could be one in there that could be an Olympian, they could be that one in a million,” Hansen said. “I was that one – which was a miracle.”
For more information, visit www.usaluge.org/search.
Follow Grant Gordon on Twitter: @TCNGrantGordon.