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UP CLOSE: USOC honors USA Luge coach Fred Zimny

October 20, 2017
By ANTONIO OLIVERO - Staff Writer (aolivero@adirondackdailyenterprise.com) , Lake Placid News

LAKE PLACID - Eighteen miles west of Chicago, there is a village of 25,000 people that has become a most unlikely of grassroots locations for USA Luge and its youthful, wide-eyed Olympic dreamers.

It's here in Westmont, Illinois, where USA Luge has traveled four times to conduct its Slider Search program. On each of these trips, Junior National Team Coach Fred Zimny has been the man introducing these boys and girls, ages 9 to 13, to his beloved sport, shepherding each of them down Westmont's main street one by one atop wheeled-sleds.

"Every time we go, there is a turnout," Zimny said.

Article Photos

USA Luge coach Fred Zimny
(News photo — Antonio Olivero)

Whether it's here at home in Lake Placid, out in an Olympic city like Park City, Utah, or on the suburban streets of Westmont, in 2017, USA Luge's Slider Search program introduced about 500 children to the sport while using the program to find future talent.

At the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi Russia, seven of 10 athletes were Slider Search alums, which is proof positive that the search program Zimny has shaped for more than two decades is working.

Put simply, Zimny has been the hands-on introductory and educational gatekeeper to thousands of young kids trying luge for the first time. That includes those who never shake their fright and those who never try the sport again, all the way to Olympic bronze medalist Erin Hamlin, who joined the national team after she partook in a Slider Search in Syracuse as a 12-year-old.

It's this dedication to the future of USA Luge that earned Zimny the honor of the Rings of Gold Award from the United States Olympic Committee, an award he received at a ceremony in Colorado Springs on Friday, Oct. 13. It recognized his dedication to helping children develop their Olympic dreams through the Slider Search program.

Standing in front of an assembled crowd with Olympic gold-medal heroes such as Edwin Moses and Apollo Anton Ohno listening to him, the moment was surreal for Zimny as he shared his own luge origin story.

"When I got there, it was a little overwhelming," Zimny said. "I didn't know how big it would be. I was a little nervous when I got there, and it multiplied by a thousand times.

"It's still a little hard to believe, but I also more importantly think it's a validation of what we are doing at USA Luge. It's about the program we are doing and the Slider Search we are doing. I's not just me."

Friday's ceremony was about Zimny, though. And it served as a capstone to the 41-year luge journey he's been on since he had the need for speed in a sled before he even got behind the wheel of an automobile.

In 1976, a 16-year-old Zimny first yearned for the sport, even though he did not have the same kind of an opportunity to fall in love with luge like Slider Search participants can. At the time, he was a high school baseball outfielder and cross country runner in his 9,000-person hometown of Boonton in suburban Morris County, New Jersey. Back then, Zimny knew little about luge until he saw the sport broadcast live from the 1976 Olympic Winter Games in Innsbruck, Austria on an old color television in he and his father's home.

Thinking back, Zimny believes he was so smitten with the sport because he was enamored with the Olympic ideal, intrigued by the international aspect of winning a gold medal.

"I could get involved with this," he said at the time.

So he bugged his father Walter, a World War II veteran, to take the 276 miles north to Lake Placid to check out the only U.S. luge run - on the 1932 bobsled run.

Walter was supportive of his son, as Fred wrote a letter to the USOC asking how to become involved in the sport. They wrote back, informing him of a two-week training camp in Lake Placid in December 1976.

Several months before that winter camp, Zimny and his father took two trips up to the 1976 Olympic Summer Games in Montreal, twice stopping in Lake Placid on their way back to New Jersey.

Those were Fred's first times here, and before the father and son left that second time in the summer of 1976, they heard a local radio advertisement for what was one of the first meetings of the Adirondack Luge Club in Saranac Lake.

"They gave the address and said anyone who's interested can come check it out," Zimny said. "So we went over that day before we left town, sat there and there was the coach of the 1976 Olympic team and he had a sled there. That was the beginning."

During those first trips to the 1932 track, Zimny remembers it as an eye-opening experience, one very much different than what the newbies to USA Luge experience these days after they first tryout the Slider Search under Zimny's direction.

"We went over to the track, went and walked it," Zimny said. "And I still remember the old railroad ties for walls and a dirt floor. It was basically a ditch in the ground.

"But the thing I remember most, it was really wet, and there were lots of frogs and snakes in the track. It looked cool."

When the Zimnys returned in December, a two-week beginners camp awaited Fred. At the end of it, the camp had a race to decide the top two junior men and women, and the four would travel to compete at the world championships in Europe a few weeks later.

Fred came in second. He was competing against some of the top international stars he first saw on a grainy television tube just a year prior.

"I was a kid racing against the best guys in the world," Zimny said. "My eyes were wide open, and I had an amazing experience. For an impressionable 16-year-old, who wouldn't be hooked?"

Back at Boonton High, Zimny took pride in his luge career, something he felt was unique and set him apart from others at his school.

Zimny's luge career continued through the next decade, his highest moment a second-place finish at USA Luge's national championship and his toughest moment finishing in fourth place for the team to compete at the 1980 Olympic Winter Games in Lake Placid. The top three advanced.

"That was hard," Zimny said. "It took me 10 years to think about that without getting a burning sensation in my stomach. But you move on.

In 1989, Zimny began a coaching career with USA Luge. Thinking back to the leaders who helped shape him to become the coach he is today, Zimny said it all comes down to one man: Walter, the man he looked up to after losing his mother at an early age.

"It was always my father," Zimny said. "He was the only one, I've certainly come in contact with a lot of people through the years, but you don't realize as a kid what your parents are doing for you. I see what my father did for my family, the sacrifices he made, he's the role model that had the most impact."

Though he's in his late 50s, and though he has experienced previous success in his coaching career such as serving as National Team Manager from 1997 to 2010, Zimny still has goals he'd like to achieve as the leader of USA Luge's junior program. They are centered around increasing the program's quality of depth.

"We have great athletes right now," Zimny said, "but I want 100 more athletes that can get on the podium and win."

And that ultimate Olympic achievement starts with one lesson at a time from Zimny on streets such as Lake Placid's Recycle Center Lane and Westmont's "perfect hill" on South Cass Avenue between 55th and West Dallas streets.

"It's a great cross section of America," Zimny said. "What kid doesn't want to lay down on something and go downhill?"

 
 

 

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