First Luge Track in U.S. Debuted in Montana

By Beacon Staff

MISSOULA – Americans competing in the luge in the 2014 Winter Olympics owe at least a bit of that opportunity to a notion a group of University of Montana students had nearly 50 years ago.

In the fall of 1965 — a year after luge debuted at the Olympics — several UM students started a luge club, helped build the first-ever luge track in the nation at Lolo Hot Springs and, despite their lack of experience, represented the U.S. at the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble, France.

Bruce Medley, who taught ROTC at what was then Montana State University in Missoula, coached the nine-member team. Competitors included Jim Murray of Avon, Kathleen Roberts of Miles City, Sheila Johansen of Billings and UM student Ellen Williams of New Jersey. Another UM student, Roger Eddy, competed for Canada.

Murray, now 67, said he had never heard of luge until he saw a sign on a bulletin board about the new club that said: “Luge, similar to bobsled.” He was sold on continuing one of his favorite winter pastimes.

“I was really intrigued when some mama would grab a truck and throw all us kids in it, and all our sleds in it, to take us up to the Luke Mine, which was right up behind our house,” Murray said. “During the shifts, when the guys were working and there wasn’t any traffic coming down — of course that road was slicker than snot — they’d turn us all loose and down we’d go.”

In luge, competitors lie on their backs on sleds and travel feet-first down the course as fast as they can.

Eddy said he asked the president of Lolo Hot Springs about building a course.

“I remember meeting with Gene Tripp and he says if you want to help build and maintain the track, you can use the sled and you can slide for free,” Eddy told the Missoulian. “That just fit the bill. That’s how I really got started in luge.”

“We just made slush and put it on the track by shovel and smoothed it off the best we could,” Eddy added. “You can imagine it was pretty bumpy and rough and stuff. Nobody really had a good idea how tracks were built.”

Murray said members of the luge club used borrowed sleds on the track, which stretched over about two-thirds of a mile.

“None of us had helmets either,” he said. “A friend had his father’s old Air Force flight helmet. So when you got to the bottom, you’d jump off quick and give it to the next guy so he could run up to the top to make his run.”

Four Montanans helped make up the fledgling U.S. Olympic Luge Committee, including chairman Patrick Byrne of Helena. The others were Dave Rivines of Miles City and luge-course developers Tripp of Lolo and Don Delaney of Missoula.

Williams, now Ellen Henry of Clinton, said teams from other countries offered tips to help the Americans.

“These people had been doing it since their youth,” Henry told the Great Falls Tribune.

She became friendly with members of the Polish team, even though they didn’t speak any English.

“They really tried to show us how to tune the sleds,” Henry said, until the team was ordered not to speak with the Americans any more.

The U.S. Olympic team ended up training in Canada before the 1968 Games.

Murray said he’ll never forget marching in the opening ceremonies, while Eddy said watching the Olympic flame go out was a horrible feeling.

Roberts finished 14th and Johansen 18th among the women. Murray finished 28th and Eddy 31st among the men.

Snow was sparse during the winter of 1966-67 and the luge track eventually faded into history.

Roberts and Murray each competed in three Olympic games. Roberts, now Roberts-Homsted, won six U.S. and seven North American championships. Murray, who now lives in North Carolina, was manager of the U.S. team for the 1980 games at Lake Placid, N.Y.

Eddy was named coach of the Canadian national team in 1974 and led the team at the 1976 Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria. He served as race director of the luge for the 1988 Olympics in Calgary.

Henry said she never thought taking up luge would make her an Olympic athlete. “I think I just wanted to have an adventure, go sledding and try it,” she said.

Eddy, who retired from the Canadian Park Service, told the Missoulian that five years ago he rode his motorcycle from his home in British Columbia to Texas to visit his son. On the way, he stayed one night in Missoula and made a side trip to Lolo Hot Springs.

“I stopped, but there were so many people around and I had no idea where the run was,” he said.

Eddy had a cup of coffee at the restaurant and left. He said he’s a private person and didn’t have the urge to pull someone aside and explain that it was the setting that launched a thousand Olympic dreams.

“It was kind of nice just sitting there thinking about it rather than talking about it,” Eddy said.

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