The extent to which Germany have dominated the sport of luge over the last decade can hardly be overemphasised. Led by the likes of legendary sliders Natalie Geisenberger and Felix Loch, they have bossed the last three Olympic Winter Games, bagging two of the three gold medals available at Vancouver 2010, all four at Sochi 2014, and three of four at PyeongChang 2018.
So it was unsurprising that when a new event – the mixed team relay – was introduced at the 2008 FIL World Championships, prior to its Olympic debut in Sochi, the Germans took control of that, too. Over nine world championships, they have topped the podium eight times in the discipline, in which one male, one female and one pair go down the track in turns, aiming for as low a combined time as possible. Germany, in short, have been almost impossible to catch.
Eyebrows were raised then, in 2019 at the FIL European Luge Championships in Oberhof, when four Italians beat the red-hot favourites to the title. Foremost among them was Andrea Voetter, a young, lightning-quick talent from South Tyrol in northern Italy. Might she be about to help break the deadlock? She is certainly aiming for it.
My goals for the Beijing 2022 Olympics are high – I really want to fight for the medals. Andrea Voetter - Andrea Voetter
“I have higher goals than I had in Sochi, when I was just 19 years old. That was a very special moment for me, and having the chance to compete at my first Olympic Games at that age was something I enjoyed every moment of. I [gained] a lot of experience. It was fantastic, seeing all the spectators at the finish.”
Voetter’s individual performances have lifted her up the rankings. She finished seventh overall in the 2018-19 World Cup season, and would have doubtless made further strides forward had this year not been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. But beating Geisenberger and her team of invincibles into silver at the Euros, alongside team-mates Dominik Fischnaller, Ivan Nagler and Fabian Malleier, has shown that in the mixed relay, Italy are a group to be reckoned with.
“I love competing in the mixed relay,” Voetter said. “It is very different from the single race. You are not alone, you are now a team, and so you have more responsibility during each race. You win together and you lose together.
“In recent years, the racing has been getting more and more appealing, and all the teams are getting closer and closer [in terms of finish times].
“I like the way you hit the touchpad on a run to start the door for the next racer down. It’s very exciting. To win like we did in 2019, you need to just be fast throughout the team. You need to combine well, too. The Italy team gets on very well and we complement each other, so we are getting stronger and stronger.”
“I started luge aged 11, on a natural track, and aged 14 got to start training on an artificial track, too. I made my first runs in Igls. I loved it immediately. We started from curve 10, and step by step took higher starts. The key to getting good is a fast start, staying aerodynamic, a good sled, and enjoying what you do, taking happiness from it. You need good reactions, strength, awareness, precision and a strong mentality.
Voetter’s physical power, partly developed playing other sports, has been key to her progress, both individually and in the team event. “As a child I played a lot of sport,” she said. “I was in a handball team and good at athletics and skiing. I’ve always loved being outside, nature – and going fast. I love speed.
“In the summer, I train mainly to improve my start. I do a lot of weight training on my arms, and we have a start track to train on. Then from October to March, we are at the track. We also train together as a team in Meransen, in South Tyrol. I do four to five hours every day, Monday to Friday.”
South Tyrol is pretty much the only place in Italy where luge commands any attention – partly thanks to a local legend who was known as “The Cannibal” for his exploits in the sport.
“In Italy, luge is not that popular,” Voetter said. “Our team are all from South Tyrol. And that’s also where Armin Zoeggeler is from – he won at all the Olympic Games he went to, and is a fantastic man.”
Since Zoeggeler, it has been all about the Germans – but with Voetter and her team absolutely flying, Italy – specifically Tyrol – might soon strike back. “We have a chance to win,” she said. “We will need good runs and some luck. But we can do it.”