Going for Gold: Bennington's Kobelia trains with Team USA in luge
BENNINGTON — Grace Kobelia is doing something only the best of the best get the opportunity to do in their lifetime — compete for her country.
The Bennington resident and Mount Anthony student was recently named as a member of Team USA's Junior C luge team.
Luge, also known as the fastest sport on ice, consists of an athlete riding a flat sled feet-first down an ice-track that can vary anywhere from about a half-mile to nearly a mile long in length. The tracks include many turns, making it one of the most dangerous sports in the Olympics. The top competitors in the world reach speeds exceeding 90 miles per hour.
"The first time I went down the track I was absolutely horrified. (I thought to myself) I could die right here. By the end of the first time you go down, you're like 'OK, I can get used to this,'" Kobelia said.
Most high school athletes have their goals set for a state title. Kobelia has hers set on making it to the Olympics, the 2026 Winter Olympic Games scheduled for Milan, Italy, to be exact.
There are five different junior national teams in USA Luge, A, B, a travel C, a non-travel C and D. Kobelia, who was on the D team last year, moved up this winter.
Despite the high-intensity atmosphere, the Mount Anthony freshmen remains calm and collected.
"It actually doesn't feel like a lot of pressure. It's really an honor to compete and represent my nation," she said.
Kobelia realized she could go far within the sport when she received the call that she made the Junior National D team for the first time in 2018.
"I thought, oh wow I can actually go through with this! It was a clarifying phone call," Kobelia said.
Kobelia consistently registers speeds of 55 miles per hour during training sessions as well as during competitions. Kobelia recorded a personal best in her last competition at youth nationals.
She was introduced to the sport in the most unlikely of places, a Facebook ad.
Kobelia's father was scrolling through Facebook one day in the summer of 2017 when a "slider search" ad in Lake Placid, N.Y. appeared. Slider searches are a nationwide search put on by the Olympic Committee to draw interest to the sport.
The then 11-year-old decided to give it a shot. Since it was during the summer, there was no ice to slide down. Instead, Kobelia was put on a modified sled with wheels, and went down a pavement hill.
Despite luge not being the most well-known sport, competition is still fierce. Over 800 kids from 9 to 13 try out during these searches throughout the country, while only a select few are chosen. Kobelia was one of the few.
The Olympic Committee puts a cap on the age for one very good reason.
"Once you hit the age of 13 a sense of natural fear sets in," said Grace's mother, Denise Kobelia.
Training for the national team presents a unique challenge for Kobelia and her teammates. The members of the national team are asked to train at the Lake Placid Olympic Training Center during part of the month of January. The training session lasts from one to two weeks.
High school doesn't stop for anybody, not even those who are training to compete for the United States.
Kobelia credits the support from her MAU teachers, counselors and MAU athletic director Ashley Hoyt during these training sessions. Kobelia transitions to an online-student while she fine tunes her skills at the Olympic Training Center.
There is also a 10-week summer training session. The Olympic Training Center has a state-of-the-art indoor facility that allows its members to train year-round.
When Kobelia is not speeding down the ice, you can find her playing soccer, softball and Nordic skiing for MAU.
But ever since her first run down a track, Grace Kobelia has felt at home.
"I've never had a sense of anxiety going down the track, it just feels natural," she said.
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