Biggest lugers

OLYMPIC DREAMS REQUIRE some level of delusion, a built-in resistance to statistics and physical sanity. The odds are so long and the demands so great. But when Brett West and his son Tucker, then just 6 years old, sat in their Ridgefield, Conn., living room and watched the luge events from Salt Lake City in 2002, the familial defiance of reason would soon surface in ways that set them apart from even the most weightless of fathers and sons.

"We just thought, Boy, doesn't that look like fun?" Brett remembers today. Almost immediately, he disappeared into the backyard and started building a run out of snow and ice. There are pictures of Tucker, smiling brightly, making his first slides on plastic toboggans. "I was just super stoked that we had this awesome sledding hill," the 18-year-old says today.

The problem with snow, of course, is that it melts, and most dads might have let their passion evaporate with it. "I came up with the dumb idea of building a wooden luge track," Brett says. Nearly every word of that sentence is an understatement. Brett is not a carpenter; he owns a media company. Without any of the requisite experience, he spent the next spring, summer and fall designing and building a run, complete with banks and drops and chicanes. Every Friday night, he would head to Home Depot and bring home another load of pressure-treated lumber and plywood, and every weekend, he and Tucker would measure and cut and bolt another section of track that, at its peak, extended 780 feet.

"It was a bit like Noah's Ark," Brett says. "The neighbors would come over and say, ‘Whatcha building?'" The following winter, an expectant Brett iced down the chute with a garden hose and prepared to launch its first test subject: a bowling ball. The ball clattered and caromed down the track -- until it reached what the Wests were already calling Devil's Curve. That's where the ball went airborne, rocketing over the side and crashing into the trees. Father and son shared an uneasy moment of silence.

Brett broke down the curve and rebuilt it, and after sleds loaded with sand had found their way safely to the bottom, the West Mountain Luge Run was ready for human trials. Tucker insisted on the honor. Brett took a position in the middle of the run, "ready to perform CPR if needed," he says, mostly joking. (He had also stacked hay bales, just in case.) But the track, and Tucker, performed beautifully. "It was quite the experience," he says. "I went straight down, and I'm still alive to this day."

The backyard luge track fast became a local legend, attracting kids and adults alike, a frozen Field of Dreams. Brett continued to tinker: PA and irrigation systems, banners and electronic timing completed the homegrown Olympic experience. Tucker diligently practiced his form, even riding a wheeled sled down the chute during summers. Within a couple of years, word had spread farther afield of the family and their unlikely obsession. "I heard about this nutjob in Connecticut who'd built a luge track in his backyard and decided to pay a visit," says Gordy Sheer, a silver medalist and today the marketing director for USA Luge.

Sheer brought his medal to Ridgefield, and backyard dreams suddenly became something more real. He invited the Wests to Lake Placid to try out the Olympic run. "It was so fast and smooth," Tucker says. "I just loved it." The Wests joined the Adirondack Luge Club and began making frequent trips to Lake Placid, plywood having been replaced with concrete, lunacy with possibility. Together they made run after run down the mountain, the son soon overtaking his father, each chasing his love.

In December in Park City, Utah, Tucker raced his way onto the Olympic luge team, the youngest American man ever to make it. Brett West was there. "Like Noah, I felt somewhat vindicated," he says with a laugh. "I can't really describe the moment. Your kid making the Olympic ..." and he trails off. He's thought about tearing down the old track, which doesn't get used much anymore, but Tucker has asked him to keep it up. It still stirs something inside him, even just seeing it, banking crooked through the trees. "I'm just so thankful my dad did that and we got to share that experience together," he says. Lugers know better than most the importance of starts.

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