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Clarkson professors aim for perfect sled for 2018 Olympic luge team


POTSDAM — For the Olympic athletes clinging to a tiny piece of steel and plastic while hurtling down an icy slope at nearly 90 miles per hour, a fraction of a second could mean the difference between a gold medal and going home empty-handed.

Clarkson University researchers hope to give Americans an edge in the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea by using computer modeling to create a sled superior to the hand-crafted variety usually seen today.

Professors Douglas G. Bohl and Brian Helenbrook have been trying to build a better sled since 2010.

Mr. Bohl met members of the U.S. Luge Association, headquartered in Lake Placid, when his son expressed interest in joining a luge team.

Clarkson sponsors the U.S. Luge Association and the design work is being done free of charge.

“Luge is a small community, so you get to know the coaches and the athletes that are in there,” he said.

Mr. Bohl’s son no longer luges, but the professor’s ties to the luge association led to a project that may one day take his work to the Olympics.

The professors had hoped to see their efforts represented in Sochi this year, but the task proved more time-consuming than they had anticipated.

“It’s a lot more complicated than it looks like when you get into it. We actually had to take a step back to get ourselves into a position to make a real contribution,” Mr. Bohl said.

Their progress was not quick enough to create a sled that athletes could get accustomed to in time for the games.

The professors and two students are now refining their efforts. They will take their prototype to Lake Placid next month to begin testing. Specifically, the researchers are designing the pod, or seat, of the small sled. Molds for the shell are usually created by hand, and are prone to error, Mr. Bohl said.

The researchers are recreating the pod as a computer model, which allows it to be manufactured by a machine. It also makes tweaking the design easier, with less room for error.

“This digital interface provides a new level of persistence, repeatability and customizability,” said graduate student Bryan J. Heckendorf of Woodstock, Conn.

Every time the sled is tested, the team can take what it’s learned to make changes to the next design, relying on data rather than the popular wisdom that guides the creation of most sleds.

“It’s important to know what’s being changed and why it’s being changed,” Mr. Heckendorf said.

These modifications will shave only a tiny fraction of a second off a top athlete’s time, but in the Olympics that could be enough to tip the scale, Mr. Bohl said.

“The athlete is responsible for most of it, but when you get to a certain level the athletes are all really good,” he said.

In the Olympics, a few hundredths of a second is often all that separates the top athletes.

Mr. Heckendorf said his research has led him to be more critical of the way he watches the luge races in Sochi this year.

“The sled that they’re using in the Olympics is the old pod design,” he said.

It will be interesting to see if his team’s updated design will fare better, he said.

America has a long way to go to achieve luge victory. Christopher Mazdzer came in 22nd place in this year’s men’s singles competition Sunday, while Germany, as usual, took home the gold.

So what makes the perfect sled?

“I don’t know,” Mr. Bohl said.

The Clarkson researchers will continue to search for the answer to that question until the 2018 Olympics.

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