At just 11 years old Ellie Kleinheinz qualified for the USA Luge Development team. Now, at 12 years old, Kleinheinz competed in her first ever Empire State Games in Lake Placid New York this past weekend. Despite a crash during training leading up to the Games, Kleinheinz put together two solid runs in her first big competition, winning gold for her 11-14 year old girls division.
Friends and family back home woke up at five in the morning Saturday to watch the live stream on the USA Luge website, while her grandparents were in New York to catch it live.
“This is the first time I’ve ever won a gold medal,” said a beaming Kleinheinz after returning to the Bay Area Monday night. “My first run was 47.127, and then I got 47.378.”
The two totals combined to give Kleinheinz a winning time of 134.505. Winning after crashing just days before in training is an impressive feat for the 12-year-old Kleinheinz. Not only to have the mental fortitude to keep her composure, but from a technical standpoint, Kleinheinz hadn’t been paddling to start in practice runs after her crash.
“My goal going in was to at least place, first, second or third, but I hadn’t been paddling during training after the crash,” acknowledged Kleinheinz. “I took a few days off, and then I paddled since I wanted to get the fastest time. I was scared after my crash, but I knew I could do it.”
In a sport that is measured to the hundredth of a second, Kleinheinz remarkably finished ahead of second place by a full 3.5 seconds. Comparatively speaking, the gap between second and third was just 0.364 seconds, from third to fourth just 0.227, and from fourth to fifth just 0.367.
She heads back to New York on Tuesday for more training. At the end of the month, the USA Youth Nationals will take place, the final big tournament of the luge season. Kleinheinz will end up traveling back and forth from New York to California three different times in the span of less than five weeks, having to take time off school and from her softball team.
She joked that sometimes it is difficult to just be a kid with all the travel for her newfound winter sport on the other side of the country.
“Sometimes it’s tough missing softball practices and schoolwork, just getting back yesterday I’m super exhausted. It’s fun traveling a lot, but it’s hard at the same time because you also just want to be a kid since you’re just 12. But you’re expected to do a whole bunch of 20-year-old things.”
Kleinheinz may have to get used to growing up fast. The USA Youth Nationals that begin on Feb. 29 will be an even bigger stage. Yet another first-place finish there could put the Santa Clara native on the fast track to stardom.