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Face of Defense: Luge Athlete Braves Heat at Fort Jackson

By Chris Rasmussen
Fort Jackson Leader

FORT JACKSON, S.C., July 12, 2010 – Before coming here to train in the sweltering heat, Army Pfc. Joseph Mortensen spent his days sliding down frozen luge tracks around the world.

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Army Pfc. Joseph Mortensen, a luge athlete, now spends his days with his fellow basic combat training soldiers of 1st Battalion, 34th Infantry Regiment at Fort Jackson, S.C. U.S. Army photo by Chris Rasmussen

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Mortensen, 21, Company E, 1st Battalion, 34th Infantry Regiment, competed internationally in luge, a sport in which the athletes race on sleds down a track about a mile long at speeds up to 90 mph.

"It is the biggest adrenaline rush of your life," said Mortensen, who is in his seventh week of basic combat training.

The luge athlete, who took up the sport at age 9, missed the 2010 Winter Olympics by one slot on Team USA.

"I loved the fact that when I woke up I was competing against the world's best," said Mortensen, whose Army specialty is interior electrician, adding that he plans to make a run for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

"It is a very mentally and physically challenging sport," he said. "The training is very much like [basic combat training]. We do a lot of push-ups, V-ups and pretty much anything you can think of that works the upper body." V-ups are an abdominal exercise.

In addition to upper-body strength, luge requires the ability to completely relax the body with controlled breathing – similar to some of the skills required for marksmanship.

Mortensen, of Huntington Station, N.Y., begins each season by training at Lake Placid, N.Y., before venturing to tracks across Europe and Canada.

"Each track has its own unique personality and requires a different approach," he said. "I loved traveling to the different tracks and experiencing different cultures. Some of the things I have seen I had only read about. It was kind of an overwhelming experience."

Mortensen got into the sport as a youth because his father worked for a major luge sponsor.

"I was a pretty active youngster," he said. "I first started sliding when I was 9 years old, and my father was able to introduce my brother and [me] to the sport."

The most important aspect of a luge run is the start, Mortensen said. The athletes push off and gain momentum by paddling their hands, which are clad in spiked gloves.

"You pick up speed when you go into corners, but your body has to be completely relaxed," Mortensen said. "The tighter the curve, the more pressure that is released, and the faster you go. How smooth you steer also determines your speed going around corners." Luge athletes steer their sleds with the calf of each leg or by exerting opposite shoulder pressure to the seat, he explained.

The sport is not without its dangers. During the 2010 Winter Olympics, Georgian luge athlete Nodar Kumaritashvili was killed in a training-run accident.

"That accident had a big impact on the sport, and speeds were reduced to prevent future fatalities," Mortensen said.

Besides sliding down a frozen track on his back, Mortensen was a three-sport athlete in high school, where he participated in wrestling, baseball and soccer. He said he joined the Army National Guard to help aid in the fight in Afghanistan.

All in all, Mortensen said, he is enjoying his time at hot and humid Fort Jackson.

"Where I am from, I am not used to this kind of heat,” he said. “If it was a dry heat, it would be OK. But this is brutal. Overall though, I am having a good time."


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