“Jamaica, we have a bobsled team,” is a line in the inspirational song from the Disney movie Cool Runnings, based on a true story of the first Jamaican bobsled team. Well, Santa Clarans, we may not have a bobsled team, but we now have a luger.
Twelve-year-old Ellie Kleinheinz is currently a member of the Team USA Luge Development team. In the early fall of 2018, Ellie’s father, Todd Kleinheinz, happened to stumble onto an advertisement on Facebook for a “Try Luge” clinic in Palo Alto for kids aged 9 – 13.
Prior to having ever seen Cool Runnings nor having a single clue what luge was, Ellie immediately said yes when her dad asked if she wanted to try it.
“My dad was like ‘Ellie, do you want to try luge?’ and I was like ‘yeah sure, but I have no idea what it is’” joked the seventh grader, who currently attends St. Justin in Santa Clara. “I had nothing to do in the meantime, so I figured why not?”
After a few runs in Palo Alto down the dry street course, the Kleinheinz clan figured they could look back on the experience during the next Olympics and joke about how Ellie tried doing that once. Little did they know they would receive an email a few weeks later inviting Ellie back for tryouts in Lake Placid, New York for the real thing.
After two rounds of tryouts in Lake Placid, Ellie was one of seven new girls added to a team of 15 girls for the 10 – 14-year-old development team. She is just one of two girls who live west of the Mississippi. While California has great winter conditions for skiing in the Sierra Nevada mountains, the sport of luge has largely been dominated by participants in the northeastern states.
Later this month Ellie will return for her fifth trip to Lake Placid. This time she will be training briefly before participating in the Empire State Games. Ellie and her USA teammates will be competing against teams from other countries including Germany, Russia and Japan.
“It’s crazy just thinking about it, people from different parts of the world are coming to the U. S. to face my team in luge,” remarked Kleinheinz. “A year and a half ago I had no idea what it even was.”
A key part of this unexpected journey for Ellie and her family have been the support system of coaches and teachers. According to Ellie’s mom, Stephanie Kleinheinz, the teachers at St. Justin have gone out of their way to help accommodate for her having to miss weeks of school at a time. And perhaps most noteworthy, is the level of awareness of the Olympic-level coaches who are cognizant that these are still very young athletes.
“If we don’t feel good on a run, if we feel really nervous, he will understand if we don’t want to go,” noted Ellie on her coach, former Olympian Aidan Kelly.
For those looking to learn more Ellie’s journey with Team USA, the Kleinheinz have a website up at teamellieusa.com. The site is full of blog posts and photos from the start of her journey through to Lake Placid training runs. Supporters can also donate directly on the website to help Ellie continue on her path to potentially becoming a Team USA Olympian.
I am an accredited International Luge Federation race official living in Pleasanton, California, who has officiated at three of North America’s artificial tracks. As one who is intimately involved, it is always a source of pride when any youngster on the planet experiences the joy of our wonderful sport!