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When the Olympic luge competition begins in Sochi, Tucker West will be the youngest competitor. The 18-year-old Connecticut native got a head start in the sport when he was young - really young - thanks to his father and a remarkable amount of plywood. Craig LeMoult of member station WSHU explains.
CRAIG LEMOULT, BYLINE: It's single-digit cold as Brett West steps into the snow in his backyard in Ridgefield, Connecticut and points to a wooden monstrosity looming there.
BRETT WEST: The whole thing is made of wood, two-by-fours, four-by-fours and three quarter-inch plywood, all pressure-treated lumber with a lot of screws holding it together.
LEMOULT: It stands 32 feet high and looks kind of like a wooden roller coaster.
WEST: You want head up to the top?
WEST: Come on, let's go.
LEMOULT: From the top, a wooden shoot drops off at nearly a 40-degree decline.
WEST: You know, this first shot, when you come out of here, by the time you get to the bottom down there with that big first curve, you're doing about 35 miles an hour.
LEMOULT: From there, the track snakes through the trees. It used to have a system to spray water on it to coat it all with a layer of ice. West climbs down the ladder and walks down the track.
WEST: This is a jump. You could actually get enough distance in your jump that you'd land on the downhill section.
LEMOULT: That's like 15 feet away, though, right?
WEST: Yeah, yeah. If you're hauling, it launches you.
LEMOULT: His son, Tucker, says the idea for the backyard track came when he was just 6 years old. He and his dad were watching the 2002 Olympics.
TUCKER WEST: He just said, man, that's cool. Do you want to try that? And I said, heck, yeah. I mean, this is just the advanced version of sledding.
LEMOULT: A couple of attempts to build a track in the snow melted too quickly.
WEST: So I decided at that point that what we needed was a wooden luge track.
LEMOULT: After months of obsessive work, they had their track. Brett says his son couldn't get enough.
WEST: You know, we had a PA system out there, and I would announce, here we are at the Olympics and next up is Tucker West, and Tucker's track is clear and he's going. And, you know, we would pretend things like that, which is what was part of that built this Olympic dream in him.
LEMOULT: Tucker's dream took a turn towards reality when a local newspaper article about the track wound up on the desk of Gordy Sheer, the marketing director for USA Luge and an Olympic silver medalist in the sport. Sheer was intrigued and went to check it out for himself.
GORDY SHEER: It was truly amazing to see. First of all, the engineering and the thought that went into it, but also the length of the thing. I mean, it was, you know, 800 feet, something like that. It was a big track.
LEMOULT: Sheer invited Brett and Tucker up to Lake Placid, New York to try out a real Olympic luge track, and the two of them were hooked. They started making the five-hour drive every week. By the time he got to high school, Tucker switched to a boarding school in Lake Placid. Since ninth grade, his family has only gotten to see Tucker for a few weeks at a time.
WEST: But now that he's achieved his goal, you know, all the questions that we had, did we do the right thing for him, allowing him to go off at such a young age, that, you know, that question has been answered.
LEMOULT: That goal, of course, was the Olympics. In December, Tucker West qualified to be the youngest member of the U.S. Olympic luge team ever. They've sadly decided his mother and sisters won't make it to Sochi because of security concerns, but Brett says he just has to be there.
WEST: It will, without a doubt, be the most emotional thing that I've experienced.
LEMOULT: Tucker says if it wasn't for his dad, he'd never be going to the Olympics.
WEST: He gave me the opportunities to do what I do.
WEST: All I did was what any dad would do and, you know, try to plant some seeds in their young children and throw some water on it. And then once it's sprouted, you know, he grew it himself.
LEMOULT: You threw some water on it and then you froze that water, actually.
WEST: And then I froze the water. Right.
WEST: That's correct.
LEMOULT: For NPR News, I'm Craig LeMoult in Connecticut.
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