Tucker West is an American luger who, at the age of 18, was the youngest male ever to qualify to represent the United States in the men's luge at the Olympics. A big part of his early success was because when Tucker was a boy, his father designed and built a wood luge track in the backyard of their Ridgefield home!
Tucker talks about his development and time as an Olympian in this one-on-one interview with our Tuck Life team member Georgina Stern:
At 18, you were the youngest male to qualify for US Men’s luge and a big part of your identity as an Olympic athlete has been your youth. What challenges have you faced as a young athlete in such an intense environment?
It’s challenging to go in young because you go in as an underdog, especially in luge because it’s an experience sport, where you’ll see the top guys be upwards of thirty or forty years old. Experience really kills in our sport so when you’re going in with only a few years under your belt, it’s hard to see yourself as a medal contender. The big challenge is getting over that mental hurdle of saying to yourself, “I can compete with the top people and I can be the best.”
You’ve had to sacrifice a lot to pursue your luge career. Traveling, competing with the best athletes in the world, representing the US must be a very maturing experience. What life lessons have you learned in this process?
Being an athlete of this caliber is tough. It’s taught me how to be independent. I moved away from my family to pursue training in Lake Placid in seventh grade. Living on your own makes you grow up quick. When I came out here, I had no idea how to do laundry. I ruined a few white shirts, but I figured it out. While I’m not adhering to the kind of cookie-cutter “finish your school in X amount of years, get this degree, get a job with a corporate culture”, I think I’m still getting the experiences that will help us out in life later… hopefully!
Your family has been a core team of support. Your dad built the luge course in your backyard, brought you to Lake Placid and even embarrassed you in interviews. What have you learned from his support and energy?
My family has taught me to just give it your all. If there’s something worth doing, it’s worth overdoing” has been their motto their whole life. I came into luge and never half-assed it, i always gave it my all, gave it my best. If I’m gonna sacrifice all the schooling, going away from my friends and family, you gotta give it your all. I’ve gotten a lot of work ethic from my family. My dad taught me a lot of it but it wasn’t just him, it was my mom and my sisters; it’s a group effort. If you have a crappy race, and they’re there to pick you up, if you have a great race then they’re there to pick you up even higher. It’s always great to have the support of family.
When did you know you wanted to be a professional athlete?
I’ve always wanted to be an Olympian, it’s the dream of a lot of young kids. I never really knew what sport it was going to be in. As I got older I started doing other sports and nothing ever clicked for me, but I really hadn’t found a passion for them. But then we got to luge, we built a backyard track, went to Lake Placid to try it for real, and I found a passion for it and knew I wanted to pursue. Then as I got a bit deeper and better, you go, “Oh, holy crap. Maybe this is a possibility. I want to work towards that goal.”
Athletes tend to have their own mottos to stay motivated and keep things in perspective. (“ Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life a champion”) What’s your motto?
No, I don’t really have a motto but I always try to be the hardest worker so then whatever results follow I’ll be happy with.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve received? (who said it?)
I don’t know who said it, but one time after a crappy race, I was really down on myself; they told me not to take it too seriously, don’t take life too seriously. It’s funny, you get so into it, you think that that one race is your whole world but when you take a step back and zoom out, you’re so lucky. I’m able to travel the world with my best friends, compete in the sport that I’ve loved since I was ten years old, and I’m really just fortunate to do this. So when you can take that kind of stance in life, it can even help you perform better because then you don’t put such a harshness on everything.
How do you keep yourself motivated?
I’m really competitive, I hate losing. I think that’s a big thing that keeps me going. The taste of winning always brings people back, even a simple Monopoly game. I don’t take losing well, so I think that’s what keeps me going.
Have you looked up to any athletes throughout your career? Who are they and why?
Yeah, there’s definitely been athletes in my sport, but I’ve always looked up to Michael Phelps. His amazing feat was in 2008 when he won all the gold medals. I was two years into the developmental team at the time, so as he was reaching his peak and continuing his peak it was awesome to look up to him and see him maintain his caliber.
How do you manage the stress of events and nerves before you compete?
It’s definitely a learned skill, I wouldn’t say there’s one thing that does it, and it’s definitely something I’m still learning. If I were to say I wasn’t nervous to the bone before a race or that there weren’t butterflies coming out of my throat, I’d be a stone-cold liar. Everyone gets nervous before a race. I think what separates a winner from someone who’s maybe middle of the package is what they do with those nerves, how they channel those nerves into an athletic performance. Because at the end of the day, everyone’s nervous- whether it’s taking a test or going to a job interview, anything. Everyone gets nervous, it’s just how you use those nerves.
How was life at the olympic village?
It was a lot of fun. Luge men singles was very lucky, we’re in the first two days of competition and then we’re done for the rest of it. So opening ceremonies happened, we competed right off the bat, and then for the rest of it we were just Olympic fans that had a free trip to the Olympics. So it’s a lot of fun! You get to hang out with the other athletes, get to see other sports, see the dynamic of everything, get to go watch and cheer.
What is your favorite country you’ve been to?
I think I like Austria the best, overall. It’s definitely one of the prettiest spots on tour for us, we’re right in the mountains and everything’s always snow-capped, very nice people.
What did you enjoy most about the Olympics?
I was really excited to see some of the skiing events. I’m a big fan of Mikaela Shiffrin. I think she’s just really a boss in how she’s dominated from such a young age. I mean she’s my age and she’s just crushing the rest of the field. The women’s hockey game was really cool to see and how they broke the 20 year drought.
What kinds of activities do you do in your off season? What would you like to do more of?
There really isn’t much of an off season for us. We actually just started our off season, so there’s a lot of training. It really is like a 9-5 job. But outside of that time, we’re in the heart of the adirondacks, so it’s nice to get outside here, go for a hike, go biking, sit by the lake. I’d definitely like to be better about getting outside. When you’re done with training, a long nap sounds better than taking a walk around the lake.
After traveling to compete internationally, what is it like to go home and see your backyard course?
Oh, it’s the best. Coming back to see the backyard course, especially coming back from the Olympics is pretty humbling. You were at the top of the top and you get to see where it all began, so it’s kinda metaphorical in how it all began. It’s really awesome to come home, decompress, see your family, live a normal life for a little bit, let your body relax. Those weeks that you get off are truly the ones that you cherish.
Because luge is a less popular winter sport, it’s hard to find for younger athletes, so I understand you’ve been trying to create more opportunities for the youth to get involved.
Yeah, I don’t personally partake in an outreach program. I wish I had an aptitude for that. Luge is such an awesome sport I wish that more of the world could love it. Obviously there’s only 2 luge courses in America, one in Lake Placid, NY and one in Park City, Utah. So unless you’re centered around those areas, it’s a bit tough to get to and a bit tough to do. It’s not even so much luge, but more of those niche sports like curling. The ball sports aren’t the only ones out there and maybe people could really find a passion for a niche sport like I did!
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