Backyard Olympian: Tucker West
Many kids practice their buzzer beater jump shots against an imaginary opponent in their backyard. Growing up, Tucker West played out his dreams in his Ridgefield, Conn. backyard. But his vision of athletic glory involved flying down a sheet of ice.
The 18-year-old slider will compete in Sochi this February as the youngest male ever to make the U.S. Olympic Luge Team.
“I’ve always been a bit of a luge nerd since I first watched the sport in 2002,” said West.
And that’s where it all began. While watching the luge competition during the Salt Lake Olympics, Tucker’s father, Brett West, said to his seven-year-old son, “That looks like a lot of fun. Is that something you’d like to do?”
The two were so enamored with the sport that they decided to build a luge track in the backyard of their home in the quaint New England town of Ridgefield.
It started with a snow track that they iced down, but it would always melt away. Eventually it evolved into a wooden monstrosity.
“I got obsessed with it. Any free time I would be out here building this stupid contraption. It was a bit like Noah’s Ark,” Brett West said.
PHOTOS: Tucker's Backyard Luge Track
Embedded owg_slideshow: An Olympian's backyard slip 'n slide
This is no amateur structure. The wooden track runs 750 feet and is the only luge track, along with Sochi’s, to include an uphill section. It features a PA system, weather station, electric timing, an automatic icing spray system and lights for nighttime runs. It’s even fully certified by the state of Connecticut.
The track took about a year to complete after a lot of hard work and endless trips to Home Depot.
“I lost my mind. I got so fixated. Literally tens of thousands of screws. For every 15 screws I got in, he [Tucker] put one in,” said Brett.
All the long hours proved to be worth it when Tucker took his first run down the homemade course, beaming from ear to ear. Luge became his life’s mission from that moment on, never settling for less than his best.
“We used to clock everyone’s times. I would always have the top time because it was my track. One time one of the guys beat it. I could not stand for that. I couldn’t fathom that. So I went up 10 more times and, eventually, I finally beat it."
Tucker's father began to prepare Tucker for the world stage by sitting on the track and announcing his runs over the PA system, pretending it was the Olympics.
“Every two years when the Olympics were on TV, I would watch them from the Opening Ceremony to the Closing Ceremony, every minute of it. I always dreamed of winning a gold medal or just being at the Games,” said Tucker.
His dream started to take shape when the marketing director of USA Luge, Gordy Sheer, heard about the backyard luge track and showed up at the West’s home with his Olympic medal from the 1998 Nagano Games. Sheer invited West to take a trip up to Lake Placid, N.Y. and try out a real track.
“I’ll never forget how excited Tucker was. It’s like going from a car with no shocks to a car with the world’s best shocks. I had never seen him so excited, so jazzed. He was exploding,” said Brett.
PHOTOS: Meet the U.S. Olympic Luge Team
Embedded owg_slideshow: The U.S. Olympic luge team
Tucker trained with the Adirondack Luge Club for two years before the Slider’s Search, USA Luge’s recruitment tour, came to Ridgefield and offered him a spot on their Junior Development Team. By 9th grade, Tucker left his friends and family in Connecticut and moved to Lake Placid to attend the National Sports Academy. He's continued to make his way through the team rankings and now to the Olympic Games.
“He wouldn’t be in the Olympics if not for this track,” said Brett. USA Luge knew Tucker as the boy with the track in the backyard -- it’s what really opened their eyes to him.
“I dabbled in a little bit of every sport, but I was never really good at any of them, so luge is my saving grace,” says Tucker.
The track hasn’t been used in the five years since Tucker has been training in Lake Placid and his sisters, Tatum and Gracie, have very little interest in the sport. Only 380 feet of the course remain, but Brett has plans for the track’s future.
“There’s been others in the family, I won’t name names, who suggested it should come down…I’m already thinking ahead to my grandkids. There may be a version 2.0.”
Tucker is hoping to take a few more runs on the backyard course once he’s not busy training for the Olympics and juggling school. He is currently the only slider on the team who is attending a college campus, rather than taking online classes.
“I’m going into my freshman year after the Games at Union College, which is on a trimester calendar and works well with my training schedule. I’ll be able to go to school for one semester a year. It will take a while to graduate,” he joked.
With the West family traveling to Sochi to cheer him on, Tucker hopes that his childhood dreams become a reality in February. The odds of a Connecticut boy reaching the Olympics from a backyard start were slim, but anything is possible if you are dedicated to your goals, says Tucker.
“Everyone has a dream. But it’s going to stay a dream unless you act upon it. I’m excited to represent Team USA and I hope I can make them proud.”
Embedded video_content_type: How to conquer the Sochi luge track