Luge and the Lab

As director of the Human Performance Lab at Boise State University and the author of nine fitness and wellness books, kinesiologist Werner Hoeger understands body movement. This month in Torino, Italy, the 52-year-old professor will put his theories to the test: He?ll be competing in luge at the 2006 Olympic Games.? Like gymnastics, Hoeger says, ?The sport of luge takes a tremendous amount of body awareness. You have to be able to feel the gravity forc

By | February 1, 2006

As director of the Human Performance Lab at Boise State University and the author of nine fitness and wellness books, kinesiologist Werner Hoeger understands body movement. This month in Torino, Italy, the 52-year-old professor will put his theories to the test: He?ll be competing in luge at the 2006 Olympic Games.?

Like gymnastics, Hoeger says, ?The sport of luge takes a tremendous amount of body awareness. You have to be able to feel the gravity forces as you go through the curves.? In the course of two days this month, Hoeger will have to steer his sled four times through a 1,435 meter run at nearly 90 miles per hour, navigating a staggering 114 meter drop and 19 curves that have already sent nearly a dozen athletes to the hospital.

Growing up in Venezuela, the country he now represents, Hoeger was acclaimed as one of the country?s greatest gymnasts and the nation?s all-around champion for six consecutive years. He was skilled enough to compete individually in the Olympics, but he lost his chance when the Venezuelan squad failed to qualify. His gymnastic prowess did, however, lead him to a scholarship at the age of 16 to Brigham Young University, where his athletics fueled his interest in sports conditioning. He obtained an undergraduate degree in physical education, then went on to earn a doctorate in exercise physiology at the age of 24, researching, not surprisingly, the energy cost of men?s gymnastics routines. At Boise State, where he has been on the faculty since 1986, he has researched and taught athletic training and the physiological effects of nutrient supplements.

It wasn?t until 1998 that Hoeger?s athletic focus shifted from the gym mat to the icy track, after he watched the first Venezuelan Winter Olympian compete in luge at the Nagano Olympics. He contacted the luger, Iginia Boccalandro, who encouraged him to try the sport, and after taking his kids with him to a street luge clinic, he and his teenage son, Chris, were hooked. Hoeger reserved holidays and long weekends to train in Utah, a six-hour drive from his home, and would take a few weeks out of each year to train in other parts of the world.

Two concussions and one broken ankle later, Hoeger?s second chance at the Olympics came in 2002, when both he and Chris qualified to luge in the Salt Lake City Games. They were the first father-son duo in history, and at 48 years and 17 years of age, the oldest and youngest male luge competitors there. Hoeger came in 40th place and his son in 31st. This time around, his son can?t go; he?ll be busy attending his father?s alma mater.

?I started the sport of luge basically five weeks short of my 45th birthday? he says. But what Hoeger lacks in youth, he compensates for in scientific expertise. Hoeger says that his academic preparation ?has allowed me to participate at this level. ? I am constantly bombarded with information that has to do with the best scientific principles on athletic conditioning, nutrition, coaching techniques.?

Hoeger has taken a several-month leave of absence from Boise to prepare for the competition, but throughout his training process, he has continued to bring his athletic experiences to the lectern. ?He lives his science,? says Barbara Popadics, a former student. His experiences may even fuel research on the ?tremendous amount of mental preparation? involved in sports such as luge, a subject he has already discussed with Linda Petlichkoff, a sports psychology colleague in the kinesiology department. ?You have to admire his determination,? she says.

It?s not about the medal for Hoeger. As the oldest luger at the upcoming competition, with little outside funding and academic responsibilities limiting his training time, he says his goal is to have four clean runs. ?Just because you?re middle-aged, doesn?t mean you have to go downhill,? Hoeger says. ?I go downhill fast.? As for future Olympic endeavors, Hoeger says he ?will take it a year at a time.?

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