Up until the start of Beijing 2022, Olympics.com will unveil the secrets behind each of the 15 disciplines of the Winter Games through exclusive interviews with legends who accomplished greatness in their sports.
Despite having announced his retirement in 2014, Armin Zöggeler is still synonymous with adrenaline and victories in the world of winter sport. No other luger has more World Cup singles triumphs (57 gold medals, with 31 and 27 second and third place finishes respectively), which earned him 10 crystal globes, a record shared with Austrian Markus Prock.
Nicknamed "The Cannibal" for his hunger for victories, Zöggeler established his "reign of ice" in the Winter Olympics, participating in six consecutive editions – from Lillehammer 1994 to Sochi 2014 – and breaking another incredible record, that of being the only athlete to win medals consecutively in the same discipline – singles – in six Games. Who better than him to explain the secrets and passion behind luge, a sport synonymous with speed, power and technique?
Below is a transcript of our exclusive interview with Armin Zöggeler, lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
Olympic Channel (OC): Armin, are you still sledding since you retired?
Armin Zöggeler (AZ): No, but luge has remained at the centre of my activity since I am the technical director of the Italian team, a young squad with excellent talent, like the Fischnaller cousins. This year Dominik got on the podium at the European Championships, while Kevin won the World Cup Sprint.
OC: How did you discover sledding and what inspired you to become a pro?
AZ: I dreamed of doing something special from a very young age. I started sledding when I was six years old, riding it to school with friends. Then I joined a club participating in small competitions on natural ice, and when I was 14 I started to slide on an artificial track. It was 1988 and I had my first meeting with my future companions: it went well and I started to get serious.
OC: Is there a luge athlete who has inspired you?
AZ: My older national teammate like Paul Hildgartner and Germany's Georg Hackl and Austria's Markus Prock are all excellent athletes. And the fact that they had already won medals at the Games fascinated me a lot.
Luge in one minute
- The basics: Athletes race against the clock, sliding at speeds of up to 140 km/h down an artificial slope on a wooden and metal sled. The sport is a mix of technique, power and concentration.
- Olympic History: Luge entered the Olympic program in Innsbruck 1964 with the men's & female singles and doubles events. In 2014, the mixed team relay was added to the competition.
- Olympic medals by nations: Germany top the table with 42 medals – excluding the 29 East German and 10 West German medals won between 1968 and 1988. Austria (22) and Italy (17) follow.
- Athletes with the most Olympic medals: Among men, Armin Zöggeler ITA (6) and Georg Hackl GER (5) are the most decorated athletes. Among women, Natalie Geisenberger GER (5) has the opportunity to equal Zöggeler's record six-medal haul at Beijing 2022.
OC: Can you describe your love of sledding in a few words?
AZ: I literally grew up on the luge, so it always felt natural, starting with the speed. And then when I switched to the artificial track, I was crazy about the adrenaline and the control – you have to master every inch of your sled.
OC: What are the qualities a luger needs to be successful?
AZ: Control and the ability to focus; you have to be one with your vehicle. So the "head" is important. But you can't do anything without proper athletic work; so you spend the summer in the gym improving your balance and posture, working the muscles of the entire body - especially the muscles in your neck and arms, which are critical for luge.
OC: What is the biggest moment from your participation at the Olympic Games?
AZ: My first Olympics in Lillehammer 1994: the dream was to participate in the Games, and when I qualified it felt fantastic; even more so when I won my first medal (bronze). From that point forward my career changed.
OC: What are the three best moments of your career?
AZ: Lillehammer 1994 and winning my first gold at Salt Lake City 2002. To beat legends like Hackl and Prock to finish at the top of the podium was amazing. But even more special was to win gold again four years later at my home Olympics at Turin 2006. It was also the first gold for Italy at those Games - I will remember that moment forever.
OC: Italy has a great tradition in luge, how do you explain that?
AZ: Sledding in Italy is conditioned by the scarcity of facilities. We didn't have an artificial slope until we were awarded the 2006 Olympics in Turin, but the track was unfortunately decommissioned a few years ago. In my home region of Alto Adige, we have a great tradition of sledding that brings kids closer to the sport, and we also have a brilliant organization that draws in the best athletes to train on artificial ice from the age of 14. It is an excellent school, despite the inadequate facilities.
OC: What can we expect from the luge competition at Beijing 2022?
AZ: This will be an intriguing race on an undiscovered track. The names to beat? The German Felix Loch, ROC athletes Semyon Pavlyuchenko and Roman Repilov, and Austrian brothers Nico and David Gleirscher ( the latter of whom is the reigning Olympic champion), and finally American Chris Mazdzer. I'm confident that Italy will win at least two medals. And then there is the mixed team event, which will be very fascinating.
OC: Beyond the competition, is there a personal experience related to the Games that you will always remember?
AZ: There are so many good moments in my career, which lasted twenty years always at a high level, an incredible thing. Aside from the medals, to have ended my Olympic career as the Italian flag bearer at Sochi 2014 was fantastic - I couldn't have asked for a better ending.
OC: What makes the Olympic spirit so unique?
AZ: The Games are not just about medals. In my heart, I will always treasure the pride I felt in representing my country at the most important sporting event in the world. When you put on your Olympic uniform and get on the flight that takes you to the Games, you start feeling different and become part of a big family. And the Olympic environment is unique; the cheering of the fans is beautiful. In short, it's magical.
OC: When you were competing you were nicknamed "the cannibal" for your competitive ferocity. Do you have a secret that can help explain your tremendous success?
AZ: None but the ability to focus and charge myself 100%. When it was my turn to slide, the world ceased to exist: there were no coaches, fans or journalists - only myself, the sled and the slope.
OC: When you're not sledding, do you have any hobbies?
AZ: Of course, I like to get away too! Since I live in the mountains, I keep fit by mountain biking, and then I go hunting with my dog. But my big passion is horses. My wife and I have a Haflinger stud farm, something my Dad passed down to me. Seeing the foals being born gives me so much joy and satisfaction.
OC: It appears that the passion for luge also extends to your daughter, Nina - will we see her compete at Beijing 2022?
AZ: She needs to be able to qualify. She is still young and I work with her as I do with all the other athletes of the team. She knows I'm her father at home, but on the track I'm the team leader and she has to respect the roles. I hope she will have a very good career.