Matt DeYoung and Alex Doty
Feb 9, 2018 at 10:00 AM
MUSKEGON — The 2018 Winter Olympic Games are taking place half a world away, but their effects are being felt right here in West Michigan.
That especially holds true at the Muskegon Winter Sports Complex, where local athletes can try their hand at several Olympic sports, including the luge, skiing and ice skating.
“Every time we enter into an Olympic season, the interest is much greater than non-Olympic years,” said Jim Rudzil, the executive director of the complex. “We’re always excited to have the games and put an emphasis on winter sports.”
The facility is best known for its luge track — one of just four in the United States. The track is shorter than the Olympic-length tracks found in Salt Lake City and Lake Placid, and has several entrances so even novices can try their hand at the exhilarating sport.
Rudzil said the luge track can be intimidating at first glance, but noted that kids as young as 8 can tackle the course.
“There’s a lot of nervousness coming in, as you would expect, and a lot of smiles leaving here,” he said. “It’s an exhilarating feeling. You get on the sled — your coaches have taught you the fundamentals — and you go.”
Before heading down the icy track on a small sled, each rider goes through 10 minutes of instruction to learn the parts of the sled and how to steer.
Lakeshore Middle School eighth-graders visited the complex on Thursday. While the students had a chance to snow-shoe, cross-country ski and ice skate, the highlight for those brave enough to attempt it was certainly the luge.
“It was really fun,” student Conner Bobeldyk said. “I thought I would be scared, but I wasn’t. I went down 4-5 times. I learned to steer a little better each time.”
Bobeldyk said the field trip exceeded his expectations.
“I didn’t think it would be this fun, but there are a lot of cool activities,” he said.
Teacher Linda Sowles said the field trip introduces kids to sports they’ve never experienced.
“We started this trip a few years back when we realized that even though our students are Michigan kids, grew up in Michigan, but (they) haven’t done a lot of these Michigan activities like ice skating and snow-shoeing,” she said. “We thought this would be a great place to bring them to try that stuff out. They usually have a better time than they think. They moan and complain about having to come because it’s going to be cold, but then we get out here and they’re like, ‘Wow, that was a good time!’”
While the luge is the star of the show, Rudizil said it’s not the only one that sees an uptick in interest during the Olympics.
“We get figure skaters out here and we start to see a little bit more practicing form, girls trying to pull off some of the tricks,” he said. “We’re going to have the Olympic games on here in the lodge, and we’ll be ready for people to come out and find their inner Olympian.”
Over at the Mulligan’s Hollow Ski Bowl, those in the know say the winter games bring out interest in downhill winter sports.
“Typically, our season ends up being a little longer, and we get more participation,” said Ben Shanafelt, director of the Ski Bowl. “I’ve seen it consistently throughout Olympic years.”
Instead of the season wrapping up by the end of February, he noted that this year’s ski and snowboard season could last well into the month of March. This, he said, can be attributed to both the Olympic exposure and the prevalence of snow.
And those who use the Ski Bowl, he said, come from all levels of skill and abilities — from those who are experienced on the slopes to beginners who are learning the ropes.
Shanafelt noted the Ski Bowl is a good place for newcomers to get acclimated with the sport due to its price point and location.
“You don’t have to drive very far if you’re in Grand Haven,” he said.
You also don’t have to be an Olympic athlete to enjoy cross-country skiing in Ottawa County. The county offers ample space for people to try their hand at the winter sport at Pigeon Creek Park when the weather allows.
“I don’t know if it is related to the Olympics or not, but people were super excited we got more snow,” parks spokeswoman Jessica VanGinhoven said. “They are busy every day that we are open.”
The county park offers groomed and lit cross-country ski trails.
And for those people who are watching the Olympics and are inspired to try the activity for the first time, VanGinhoven noted that there is plenty of opportunity for that at the park.
“We have cross-country lessons at the lodge,” she said. “They’re filling back up again, so it’s good we can offer them again (due to more snow).”
Visitors can also rent skis and even snowshoes — an activity that VanGinhoven said is becoming popular, as well.
Eleven-year-old Kennedy Hosman of Nunica has been figure skating for six years. She said it’s exciting to see her favorite sport suddenly in the spotlight during the Olympics.
“I like it when it is on TV and everybody watches it because they really get to see what it is,” said Hosman, who attends Spring Lake Intermediate School and skates with the Lakeshore Figure Skating Club. “Also, some people think it is super easy and then they see triples and cool spins and they’re amazed.”
She said watching the Olympic skaters glide effortlessly across the rink makes her think of what she could accomlish if she continues to work hard.
“Seeing them skate inspires me because I know that at one point in time, they were where I am,” Hosman said. “They all tried their best and made a goal to go to the Olympics. Seeing them get to their goal inspires me to try super hard and get back up even if I fall.”