fb-pixel Skip to main content
Winter Sports

Where do luge racers come from? For Team USA, places like Medway can be a good start

Zack DiGregorio of the US luge team helped out at a "slider search" in September in his hometown of Medway. DiGregorio got started in the sport by attending a similar event at age 10.Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff

MEDWAY – Zack DiGregorio is the youngest member of USA Luge’s national team, and he has two words for people who say he’s not really an athlete.

“I say thank you, because if it looks like we’re doing nothing down that slide, that means we’re doing well,” says the 19-year-old Olympic hopeful.

Today is déjà vu for him. He’s back at his old elementary school as part of the White Castle USA Luge Slider Search, a nationwide athletic tour to recruit kids ages 9-12 for the USA Luge Junior Development Team and train them for the National team and the Olympics.


It can take 8 to 10 years to become proficient enough to race in international competitions, according to USA Luge.

DiGregorio was discovered at a local slider search in Carlisle when he was 10.

Now he’s perched at the top of the McGovern Elementary School’s gentle sloped driveway, launching kids on sleds with wheels, giving out words of encouragement and tips.

More than 70 percent of the US Olympic team was originally recruited at events like these, according to USA Luge. Most kids have zero luge experience because there are only two Olympic-style luge tracks in the United States — Lake Placid, N.Y. and Park City, Utah.

A USA Luge slider search was held at the McGovern Elementary School in Medway in September.Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff

“If everyone knew luge the way they know football, we wouldn’t have to do this, they would just do the four-hour drive to Lake Placid,” says DiGregorio.

His journey started after he finished fifth grade.

“My mom said ‘let’s go have an adventure,’” he recalls.

So, with the added incentive of a Kimball Farm ice cream cone and a free T-shirt, he and his brother gave it a try. He admits the experience was a little scary and his heart was pounding.

“I definitely thought it was fun,” he says. “But I was not really thinking it’s going to lead to much more.”


Months later he got a letter inviting him to Lake Placid for a selection camp.

“The rest is history,” says his mother, Krista DiGregorio, smiling.

Zack DiGregorio (left) was 10 when he and his brother, Rob (right), attended a slider search in Carlisle in 2012.

Only a luge mom knows the angst of watching her son speed down a banked ice track at 88 miles per hour while lying on his back and gazing up toward the heavens.

“It’s nerve wracking,” Krista says. “I was explaining to another mother that as you get better and better at luge, to be aerodynamic, your head has to be fully back, so you can’t see where you’re going. These athletes have to memorize the track . . . if you make one tiny mistake, it’s all over.”

At the 2017 junior nationals in Lake Placid, DiGregorio was moments away from victory on his final run when he flipped his sled, ripped his sledding suit, and skidded for about a minute.

22 members of his family were nearby, but couldn’t see him because the track was covered by a curtain to protect the ice from sun melt.

“I heard him cry out in pain and it was the worst feeling in the world,” Krista says. “They get ice burns that are not pleasant.”

“I was not badly hurt, mostly just pissed,” says DiGregorio.

Luge has been part of the Olympics since 1964.Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff

Krista says her son has a “naturally calm chill demeanor.” He says he loves “the adrenaline rush and the competition.”

That helps make him an elite athlete in the only sliding sport that measures time in thousandths of a second.


He has won a slew of awards, including a silver medal in the Junior World Cup in Germany and three top 10 results in 2019-20.

DiGregorio has traveled abroad since he was 14, doing remote learning through his sophomore year at Medway High (where he played lacrosse) and then enrolled in an online school.

He has toured the sites teenagers learn about in world history: Auschwitz in Poland, Hitler’s Eagle Nest in the Bavarian Alps, and the old Soviet bunkers in Latvia.

DiGregorio spent this summer lifting weights and practicing the all-important handle pull start on the new refrigerated ramps at USA Luge in Lake Placid.

“It’s upper body strength and explosiveness. It’s very demanding physically,” he says.

He spent time training in Russia and has begun competing on the World Cup circuit in doubles. USA Luge will name its Olympic team in early January.

The sport can be dangerous, and DiGregorio is well aware. Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili died after a crash on the opening day of the Vancouver 2010 Olympics.

DiGregorio says everything he does is a calculated risk.

“I wouldn’t say I’m crazy,” he says. “I don’t risk my body too far.”

Aidan Kelly, the USA Luge head of development, said there was only one rule at a slider search in Medway: “If you are nervous, scared, or if you are worried you need to put your feet down and stop.” Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff

At the local slider search, safety is key. All the kids wear helmets and start slowly. If they feel comfortable, they will then move back and start from a 5-foot high portable ramp.


The kids are surprised that merely turning their heads helps them steer. They are even more surprised that there are no brakes. Aidan Kelly, the USA Luge head of development, says there is only one rule here.

“If you are nervous, scared, or if you are worried you need to put your feet down and stop,” says Kelly. “Do we all agree with that rule? We don’t want you to get hurt.”

Today everyone tries the ramp, and their initial apprehension turns to joy. Several yellow cones dotting the course get kissed, but no one gets so much as a scraped knee.

Kelly, in the midst of the nine-stop recruiting tour, tells them if they are not selected, to try, try again. It took him three tryouts before he was finally picked. He even competed in the 2014 Sochi Olympics (finishing 24th). He says the opening ceremonies were magical.

“It’s one of the few things in life that will ever live up to the hype.”

Now he grades the newbies. Cam Lavery, 9, of Franklin scores an attitude of 10, and a fear factor of zero.

“I was really scared at first but by the end it was really fun,” says Lavery.

The US has plenty of catching up to do in the Olympic medals race. Germany dominates the sport with 81 medals since it became an Olympic sport in 1964.

“They’ve been doing this since they came out of the womb,” said American slider Kate Hansen at the Sochi 2014 Olympics.


The US has won six medals in luge and Chris Mazdzer, born in Pittsfield, won the silver in PyeongChang in 2018.

Earlier this month DiGregorio teamed with Sean Hollander to win the doubles crown at Lake Placid.

In doubles, one slider is lying face up on top of another and the two must work as one. DiGregorio was on top and yes, he’s heard all the jokes about that, thank you.

He says critics can be as sharp as the gloves that grip into the ice to accelerate at the start.

“Growing up people would say, ‘why are you doing such a weird sport?’ Or ‘you’re only doing this to get to the Olympics.’ Yeah, I love the sport and there’s no other end goal to a sport like luge than to go to the Olympics,” he says. “It’s not like I can make it in track and field.”

He hopes to compete in the Beijing 2022 Olympics. He already feels blessed.

“Every day I’m wearing stuff that says USA on it,” he says. “The Olympics are very special to us. Check it out. Watch. Join. Follow along. It’s amazing.”

Zack DiGregorio is the youngest member of USA Luge’s national team.Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff

Stan Grossfeld can be reached at stanley.grossfeld@globe.com.