HELENA — The mountains of Western Montana are full of history – and that includes Olympic history. Almost 60 years ago, a group of Montana students went from newcomers to pioneers in the sport of luge.
Luge made its Olympic debut in 1964, in Innsbruck, Austria. After seeing the sport, a group of Montana businessmen got the idea to build a luge track of their own at the Lolo Hot Springs resort, in the mountains about 30 miles west of Missoula. It became one of the first places in the United States to practice the sliding sport.
Among those involved in the effort were resort owner Gene Tripp and David Rivenes, a prominent advocate of amateur sports from Miles City. Tuck Spring and Steel, a Missoula company, eventually became the first business in the U.S. to produce sleds for luge.
Soon, students at the University of Montana created a luge club and started traveling to Lolo Hot Springs most weekends to practice. The track was rough and ready – a far cry from the polished ice of today’s luge competitions. The club members found themselves not only sliding on the track but helping to build it.
The people who built the luge run hoped to host national championships and Olympic trials at Lolo Hot Springs. That never happened, since warm weather made the track too difficult to maintain.
However, the students who had learned to race there were starting to attract attention. By 1967, some of the Lolo racers had the opportunity to travel to Europe and train on professional tracks in Austria and Germany.
When the U.S. luge team for the 1968 Olympics in Grenoble, France, was chosen, four of the sliders had Montana ties. That included UM students Jim Murray, Ellen Williams and Sheila Johansen, along with 16-year-old high-schooler Kathleen Roberts of Miles City. Capt. Bruce Medley, an Air Force ROTC instructor from UM, coached the team. David Rivenes became team manager.
Another UM student and luge club member, Roger Eddy, competed for Canada at the 1968 games.
The luge competition in 1968 came with challenges. Warm weather forced many runs to be delayed. Eventually, the women’s fourth and final run had to be canceled. There was also a controversial finish, as the women’s team from East Germany was disqualified over allegations that they heated the runners of their sleds.
After their runs on the Olympic track, the Montana sliders finished in the middle of the pack. Murray was 28th, just behind the top American man. Eddy finished 31st.
Henry came in 16th among the women, while Johansen was 17th and Roberts was 14th.
The Montana connection to U.S. luge continued for another decade. Murray continued to train in the sport while serving in the military, and he returned to compete in the 1972 Olympics in Sapporo, Japan. He was joined again by Roberts – by then competing as Kathleen Roberts-Homstad. A Missoula native, Bob Rock, Jr., also made the U.S. team. In addition, UM graduate Poul Nielsen was on Canada's luge team.
In 1976, Murray and Roberts-Homstad both took part in their third Olympics, in Innsbruck, Austria. This time they were joined by Roberts-Homstad’s younger sister, Karen Roberts. It would be the last time to date a Montanan competed on the U.S. Olympic luge team.
Murray returned to one last Olympics, in Lake Placid, New York, in 1980, as a team manager.
The U.S. luge program has grown dramatically since the Montana sliders competed. Americans have now won three silver medals and three bronze medals in luge.
Today, there isn’t much left at Lolo Hot Springs to remind visitors of its place in winter sports history. The old track now looks like a typical trail, except for its sharply banked corners, but it helped blaze a path for future American lugers to follow.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated to include one additional UM graduate who competed at luge and was initially omitted: Poul Nielsen, who represented Canada.