On the luge medal podium at the Sochi Olympics this year, among the ranks of athletes from the world’s wealthiest nations, you might have noticed an outlier—Martins Rubenis of Latvia. While his competitors had the likes of BMW and Ferrari to thank for their sleds, which reach blistering speeds on the downhill ice tracks, Rubenis proudly accepted his bronze not only as a racer but also as a designer and engineer.
I caught up with Rubenis on a Celsius -12 degree day in December during the Luge World Cup in Whistler. Over mugs of hot chocolate at the Four Seasons, we relived the highlights, hurdles and spiritual insights on his journey.
A soul and a sled
During Rubenis’s 25-year career, he was a force to be reckoned with on any track. Beginning in 1998 at the World Junior Championships, he won gold and silver at multiple European and World competitions. Rubenis was the first member of Team Latvia to ever stand on a Winter Olympics podium, in 2006, Turin, Italy — a feat now being repeated more and more often by his country’s sliding athletes.
Rubenis fell in love with luge as a child. “What’s the first thing that comes to the mind of a little guy? You take a sled and you go off to the mountains and you have fun. And if somebody calls it a sport, then why not?” thirty-five-year-old Rubenis recalls, each word coming closer to a giggle than the last.
But the journey to Olympic glory is never easy, especially in a country whose culture and economy were left battered by Soviet occupation. While he was a teenager at boarding school trying to find his footing in life, Rubenis’s mother died of leukemia. “To lose a connection with parents or anyone you love,” he says, “somewhere deep inside, it makes something break.” With an independent spirit and the rock-solid support of his grandparents, he overcame thoughts of quitting and committed himself to the long, grueling practice and cross-training sessions. At the same time, he caught up with school and worked at nightclubs to make ends meet.
Around 1999, his sled needed upgrades but no one in Latvia could help him. If he was going to reach for gold, he would have to improve the sled himself.
Building model ships and motorcycles with his grandfather prepared Rubenis for that new role. “I started looking at my sled and trying to feel what should be changed. Since I don’t have any technical education, I try to feel how they work. It is more like an artistic approach than a technical approach,” Rubenis explains.
“Many people think that luging is just lying in a sled and waiting until it brings you down; it is not like that. A sled is like a living organism, all moving and working together with the body of the athlete. The most important thing is to build the sled to be one with the body.”
In the past, Rubenis would never share his parts or design knowledge with teammates. Luge is mostly an individual sport and teammates are rivals, too. But all that changed in 2005 when he began practicing “truthfulness, compassion, tolerance,” the tenets of Falun Gong, a self-cultivation practice which consists of tai-chi-like exercises and principles such as “no loss, no gain” and thinking of others first. He’s even seen his innovations on the G8 countries’ sleds at competitions around the world.
“After I took up the practice, I understood that if I share something, things come back in an even broader perspective. Knowledge is a kind of energy. When we share, we connect to the new knowledge; we give more space for new things to come. And you never know how big they will be.”
One with the way
Latvia’s former Sportsman of the Year says his sport is a lot like the ancient tradition of self-cultivation.
“When I get really stubborn about something in my life, when I just plow straight ahead, everything is very hard. It’s the same with sliding. If I just think ‘this is the only way to get down,’ sometimes I steer too much, but the curve doesn’t let me go that way. So I had to learn to feel the track and feel the way it brings me, learn how to appreciate the way it brings me, and also just try to keep on the way.”
Learning how to follow the natural course of life led to improvements in Rubenis’s physical state. “Even as I went to different doctors and people who might help me, relief was short-lived. I really couldn’t understand why. Now I understand that if my mind is right, my body follows. My hiding something and being so introverted was drilling and breaking me from the inside. I had to overcome that and change that.”
Top athletes must find ways to constantly improve their physical and mental performance. Rubenis was no exception. As early as 10 years old, he could sense that “the Eastern ways” held wisdom that could assist his performance but he was reluctant to take the initiative to try them. Years later, at the behest of his coach, he finally did and the results were immediate.
“I remember before, I was fighting against others to be better. When I started practicing Falun Gong, I realized that it had to have something to do with me. I had an ‘inner fight’ with myself, about improving myself, improving my performance and improving my approach to what I do.”
“It just instantly and naturally improved my performance. A few months later, in the winter of 2006, I won the bronze medal in luge at the Olympics.”
This winter, he stood atop the podium one last time in Sochi. He says he has now retired, but with his groundbreaking spirit, the world hasn’t heard the last of Martins Rubenis.