Luge track at Lolo Hot Springs carried Montanans to Winter Games

LOLO HOT SPRINGS – Jim Murray grew up in Avon, Montana. As a young boy, he remembers going to the movies in Deer Lodge and watching newsreel footage of an American bobsled team, led by driver Stan Benham, winning a world championship.

Those memories stuck with him years later, as a student at the University of Montana in Missoula, when he saw a flyer on his way to the student union building.

“It said ‘Luge club being formed,’ which hardly slowed me down,” said Murray. “But I just happened to read the first sentence, and it said ‘Luge: similar to bobsled.’”

Ellen Henry first saw luge in 1964, as a high school student in New Jersey. Henry, then known as Ellen Williams, watched television coverage with her father, as the sport made its Olympic debut at the games in Innsbruck, Austria.

“I thought it looked kind of interesting, but I didn’t know what it was like,” she said.

Within just four years, both Murray and Henry went from luge novices to representing the United States in the Olympics. It’s an improbable journey that started at Lolo Hot Springs, in the mountains about 30 miles west of Missoula.

After the 1964 Olympics, a group of Montana businessmen got the idea to build a luge track of their own at the resort. It would go on to become the first official luge run in the United States.

“None of these guys knew how to build a track or anything about it,” Murray said. “They just saw one and figured, ‘Well, we can do that.’”

Among those involved in the effort were Gene Tripp, the owner of Lolo Hot Springs resort, and David Rivenes, a prominent advocate of amateur sports from Miles City. Tuck Spring and Steel, a Missoula company, eventually became the first business in the U.S. to produce sleds for luge.

Murray, Henry and the other students who joined the UM luge club were soon traveling to Lolo Hot Springs most weekends to practice at the new track. They quickly found a lot of work was left to do.

“We were helping build it too, packing snow in the corners,” said Henry.

“We’re out there with a shovel and a hose, it’s cold, we’re making slush,” said Murray. “’Well, this looks about right.’”

Henry said running down the Lolo track was a unique experience.

“I remember going down it, rattling around, then I kind of jumped the track and went on the pedestrian track and jumped back in – and I won!” Henry said. “And I’m thinking, ‘This is crazy!’”

The track was officially named the Stan Benham Luge Run – in honor of the bobsledder Murray remembered from his childhood. Benham had been brought in to help with the construction, though Murray said it was mostly an honorary position.

The people who built the luge run hoped to host national championships and Olympic trials at Lolo Hot Springs. That never happened, since warm weather made the track too difficult to maintain. But the students who had learned to race there were starting to attract attention.

Henry remembers experienced luge athletes from Europe came in and worked with the club members.

“They were trying to teach us, but they had to reteach us, since the sleds were very different,” she said.

By 1967, some of the Lolo racers had the opportunity to travel to Europe and train on professional tracks in Austria and Germany.

“That’s where it all started to come together,” Murray said.

When the U.S. luge team for the 1968 Olympics in Grenoble, France, was chosen, four of the sliders had Montana ties. That included Murray and all three female competitors: Henry, fellow UM student Sheila Johansen and 16-year-old high-schooler Kathleen Roberts of Miles City. Capt. Bruce Medley, an Air Force ROTC instructor from UM, coached the team. David Rivenes became team manager.

Another UM student and luge club member, Roger Eddy, competed for Canada at the 1968 games.

Before traveling to their venue in the nearby town of Villard-de-Lans, the luge team was able to take part in the athletes’ parade at the opening ceremonies. Henry remembers seeing French President Charles de Gaulle in attendance.

“The Olympic experience is something you can’t compare,” Murray said.

The luge competition in 1968 came with challenges. Warm weather forced many runs to be delayed. Eventually, the women’s fourth and final run had to be canceled. There was also a controversial finish, as the women’s team from East Germany was disqualified over allegations that they heated the runners of their sleds.

After their runs on the Olympic track, the Montana sliders finished in the middle of the pack. Murray was 28th, just behind the top American man. Eddy finished 31st.

Henry came in 16th among the women, while Johansen was 17th and Roberts was 14th.

“We all finished, and we were all good sports, and that’s what they were looking for,” said Henry.

The Montana connection to U.S. luge continued for another decade. Murray continued to train in the sport while serving in the military, and he returned to compete in the 1972 Olympics in Sapporo, Japan. He was joined again by Roberts – by then competing as Kathleen Roberts-Homstad. A Missoula native, Bob Rock, Jr., also made the U.S. team.

Murray and Roberts-Homstad both took part in their third Olympics, in Innsbruck, Austria. This time they were joined by Roberts-Homstad’s younger sister, Karen Roberts. It would be the last time to date a Montanan competed on the U.S. Olympic luge team.

Murray returned to one last Olympics, in Lake Placid, New York, in 1980.

“I went back to Lake Placid to party with everybody and to sell off all my stuff while it still had a little bit of value, and then they asked me to be the team manager,” he said.

That year, Murray remembers meeting speed skater Eric Heiden and being able to watch the U.S. men’s hockey team win their famous “Miracle on Ice” victory over the Soviet Union.

“It’s been a good run,” he said.

Murray now lives in North Carolina. He owns a real estate company and volunteers for a program that gives children and teens a chance to ride in an airplane.

Henry never tried to make another Olympic team. She was married shortly after the 1968 games and soon had a child.

“I loved it, but I guess I just thought that was a one-time thing,” she said.

Henry now lives outside Clinton, Montana. She still has the sled she used in the Olympics and, in Olympic years, sometimes brings it to Clinton School to show the students.

“I am so lucky and so blessed,” she said.

Today, there isn’t much left at Lolo Hot Springs to remind visitors of its place in winter sports history. The old luge track now looks like a typical trail, except for its sharply banked corners. Much of the run is now part of the resort’s disc golf course.

The U.S. luge program has grown dramatically since the Montana sliders competed. Americans have now won three silver medals and three bronze medals in luge – most recently earlier this week, when Chris Mazdzer won the country’s first medal in men’s singles.

The people who learned about luge at Lolo Hot Springs are proud of the role they played in the sport’s development.

“For lack of a better term, we laid the foundation for what they have today,” said Murray.