Mark Hatton, 28, is Britain's No 1 luger, and about to compete in his first Winter Olympics. He was first attracted to the sport after viewing the 1988 Games. However, athletics, especially pole-vaulting, came first initially, and he competed up to British League level. A Londoner, Hatton trained as a PE teacher, earned a double blue from Cambridge University in athletics and ice hockey, and then played rugby in Japan for a few years. In 1993, he went on a beginners' luge week in Austria and by 1997 was competing in World Cup events.
What strengths do you need for luge?
The start is probably the most important part of the race: You need a strong, explosive upper body. For the rest of the race you need good overall flexibility and neck strength. This is very important, because you have to hold your head level with the sled. When you go round high-pressure curves maybe five or six times the force of gravity is trying to press your head down into the ice. Spatial awareness is very important. It can be disorientating when you're slightly inverted or stuck to a wall 10 or 15 feet in the air. You need to know exactly where you are with a minimum amount of vision. With luge, the most important thing is not to try and look. Each time you lift your head you create an air pocket and it slows you down.
How have you trained for the Olympics?
An Olympic scholarship has enabled me, for the first time, to train twice a day, six days a week. I spent the summer training with the team at Bath University. I do a lot of weights: Olympic lifts, cleans, snatches, dead-lifts, plus explosive and plyometric work. I throw medicine balls weighing about 25kg to build strength in the arms and back. Much of the stance on the sled is from the lower back, so I work on that. I also do weights on my neck, using a harness and lifting about 30kg while lying on a bench with my head off the edge.
How do you develop your technique for the starts?
I do a lot of practice starts. You start a luge race sitting on the sled and you have to pull on two handles. Then you use spikes placed in your fingers to hit the ice with and accelerate. The best training is on the track. Lake Placid, in Calgary, has an excellent refrigerated indoor luge-start ramp, but the closest we got to that in the UK was to get the local blacksmiths to build us some start handles. We practised on Swindon ice rink; we shared the ice with an OAP afternoon ice-skating session. They were tootling around and we were doing these manic starts.
How does your training change in the winter?
Once the season starts I will do between four and six runs a day. We do a lot of mental preparation. In a World Cup week you will only get two or three runs a day, maybe 10 runs before a race, so the more times you can mentally visualise the track the better. When you come to actually doing it, you should know exactly what you have to do because you've done it in your head a hundred times. It looks stupid – during competition you can see people walking around in a trance before a race, moving their arms and body as though they are in the sled. I've visualised the Salt Lake track nearly every day over the last two years. It is easy to clog your mind, though; sometimes you just need to get on the sled and go fast. You mustn't overanalyse.
Are you on a specific diet?
The most specific thing I eat is porridge. We have a nutritionist at the British Olympic Association, but on the road it is very difficult. When I was doing a lot of weights I would eat more protein. I did creatine for a while and it worked very well for me, but I got too big, too big for luge. When racing I take a lot of carbohydrates and fluids – very important when competing in high altitudes.
How do you unwind?
I surf for relaxation in Cornwall and north Devon, and I play golf.
What results are you hoping for at Salt Lake City?
I'm hoping for top 15. Getting as close to the top 10 as possible would be for me the equivalent of a gold medal. I'm so excited.
Interview by Manfreda Cavazza The Winter Olympics take place at Salt Lake City from 8 to 25 February. Mark Hatton competes on the 10th and 11th
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