It’s not that 1998 Olympic medalist Gordy Sheer believed the Austrians were sabotaging his steel. But Austria is one of Team USA’s toughest competitors in the Olympic sport of luge, and up until a few years ago they supplied us with the steel used in the runners that guide a luge down a track.
“We feel a lot better now, is how I would put it,” said Sheer, of himself and his fellow luge athletes.
It was actually a company with roots right here in the Capital Region that helped with the switch to U.S.-made steel. In fact, Saint-Gobain Abrasives does quite a bit more to help U.S. luge athletes hit top speeds out there on the track.
The company, while headquartered in Paris, manufactures industrial-grade sandpaper and other finishing products at a plant in Watervliet that are used to shape and fine-tune the steel runners on a luge, which is a small sled that holds one or two people who lie face up and feet-first. They steer mostly with their calves by applying pressure on these runners, and the right shape and finish of the steel can mean the difference between earning silver and earning gold.
“The runners are a very complex shape that require a high degree of tuning,” Sheer said from inside the Watervliet plant last Wednesday. “It’s all about getting not only the best shape, but also the smoothest possible runner because in a sport timed to the thousandth of a second, everything makes a difference.”
The relationship between Saint-Gobain and the U.S. Luge Association goes back more than 30 years. At first, the company helped out by providing simple donations of its Norton brand sandpaper to help shape and polish the team’s runners. In 2009, Norton/Saint-Gobain was named the team’s primary sponsor — a partnership that will continue through at least the 2018 Peyongchang Winter Games.
Saint-Gobain does more than provide products, though. Its engineering team in Northboro, Mass., began working with USA Luge coaches a few years ago to develop a “recipe for high-performance steel” that the team now uses in place of the Austrian-made steel.
“So we helped them find not just the right finish on the steel, but what’s the fastest steel they can use and other things related to using polymer material to help reduce the vibration in the sleds,” said Brad Johnson, vice president of Saint-Gobain Abrasives North America. “It’s something that can act as a shock absorber, because better control means better speed.”
Lugers typically race in excess of 60 mph, said Sheer. But records are broken every few years as tracks and runners are designed for faster speeds. In 2010, a record speed of just over 95 mph was set.
Luge is considered the most dangerous Olympic sliding sport. In the last 50 years, two people have died during practice for the Winter Olympics.
Sheer, a Hudson Valley resident, first got involved with the sport when he was 12 years old after watching the Winter Games on television for years. He was staying with his family in Lake Placid at the time, when a van drove by with a phone number and a message on the side inviting people to call and try luge. Lake Placid is home to one of the country’s two artificial luge tracks. The other is in Park City, Utah.
“I copied down that number and two weeks later I was on the ice in Lake Placid trying it out,” he said.
Sheer won the silver medal in the men’s doubles luge event in the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. He will be competing in the upcoming Sochi Olympics and thinks the U.S. team has a good chance of landing some medals.
“We had a victory just over the weekend at the final World Cup of the season,” he said. “A woman named Kate Hansen took first place. And we’ve had one of our male athletes, Chris Mazdzer, ranked fifth overall this season. So things are looking pretty positive.”