Most often, sports culture is created by the athletes who compete. Typically, the highest level of competition is between different nations and consequently, a distinct and rich culture develops within each sport. As a US luge athlete, I've found the practice of acceptance within the luge community, regardless of religion, politics, geographic location and customs, is incredibly special. We have an initial bond because of the sport but from there, we develop mutual respect based on competition, hard work, dedication and most importantly, the challenges and triumphs. These ingredients quickly give way to strong friendships. Despite very different upbringings, luge builds understanding, uniting us, both literally and figuratively, on common ground.
Smiles, beers and high fives!
When I was 13 years old, I traveled to Europe for my first competition. I quickly fell in love with travel, exploration and meeting people from all over the world. I will never forget the first time I made international friends. I remember calling my mom with excitement and surprise saying, "Mom, I just met some Slovenians! Did you know they speak English!" I am fortunate that almost everyone on the luge circuit speaks English, with some competitors speaking as many as five languages. I can easily interact with my fellow competitors and for those that don't speak English, smiles, high fives, and beers go a long way!
During the first few years of my career, I wasn't as anxious about failing at luge as I was about not being able to continue traveling and meeting people around the world. My favorite part of the sport is learning from others and getting small snippets and snapshots from their lives as it is usually so different from mine. When I was 20, I vacationed in Europe and stayed with competitors in Italy, Slovenia, Germany, Sweden and Norway. This was the first time that I visited their home and interacted 100% as friends and not competitors. I am forever grateful for the people I have met all while competing in a sport I love.
Leaving it out on the field...or luge track
My hardest obstacle to overcome is the mentality that other team or nations are "competitors". Yes, it is necessary to keep information private when my instinct is to tell a friend. Yes, I am trying to be the best at my sport and finish on the top of the podium. And yes, my competitors are all trying to do the same. At times, I experience jealousy, anger, envy, or a mixture of the three but at the end of the day, I try to take personal responsibility for my successes and failures. Although easier said than done, "leaving it out on the field" is possible if you concentrate on your personal growth rather than holding others accountable for your mistakes. This mentality makes it possible for your biggest competitors to be your closest friends.