Matthew Mortensen never expected that what started out as a bonding experience with his dad would turn into a career, let alone two turns at the Olympics. However, as the 32-year-old Huntington-native gears up to compete for a gold medal in luge in this week’s Winter Olympics, he’s quick to point out that success doesn’t come easy.
“It takes a great amount of effort and motivation, both internal and external,” said Mortensen. “If you’re not able to internally motivate yourself to train and do the things necessary to be an elite athlete, you’ll never succeed.”
Mortensen got his start in the fastest sport on ice in the summer of 1996, when he tried out for a luge recruiting program he found out about from his dad, who worked for Verizon, a main sponsor of the sport.
“My dad commuted a lot to work, so I thought this was something we could do together. I wanted to hang out with my dad and try a sport I knew nothing about,” said Mortensen, who comes from a family of nine.
The multi-sport athlete already had a soccer, baseball and basketball background, but luge allowed him experiences teens rarely have. He began competing internationally when he was 13, spending October to March traveling, and during the off-season, taking summer trips to Lake Placid for training.
The hard work paid off, and Mortensen soon found his neck adorned with medals from around the world. In 2014, he achieved an athletic apex—a shot at the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.
“2014 was the epitome of my success at that point in time,” Mortensen said. “To go to [the Olympics] was a dream come true. If there was a life goal I had, that was my life goal, to walk into an opening ceremony. It gives me chills thinking about it.”
Luge, which can be done as a singles or double event, involves riders on a flat sled hurtling down a slippery ice track at great speeds, using their muscles to steer. The Olympic sport is so fast, it’s timed to the thousandth of a second, with lugers reaching speeds as high as 90 mph.
During the 2014 Olympics, Mortensen and his doubles partner finished 14th and this year, him and partner Jayson Terdiman are going for the gold. The Olympian says that while in 2014 his mindset was excitement to be on Team USA, this go-around he is more focused on placing.
“It wasn’t a reality last time, it was more about the experience,” said Mortensen. “This time, it’s about the competition. I want to focus and do well and bring something special home.”
And if he does bring home a medal, Mortensen won’t only be doing it as a member of Team USA, but also as a member of the U.S. Army.
“I’m excited to be on the team and represent Team USA as an athlete and a soldier,” said Mortensen, who is a member of the World Class Athlete Program, which allows the Army to provide soldiers an opportunity to train and participate in the Olympics.
Training for the Army and the Olympics are quite similar, says Mortensen, as both require motivation and discipline.
“Soldiers are very disciplined. We are taught to maintain focus and be able to complete the tasks at hand and that carries over into being an athlete as well,” Mortensen said. “You have to be able to manage time effectively and do the same thing day in and day out regardless of how you’re feeling. Every day you’re training is an important day.”
Mortensen and Terdiman take their Olympic run on Wednesday, Feb. 14. And though it’s taken discipline, persistence and a great amount of internal motivation to get him to where he is, Mortensen says without his family and friends, his athletic achievements would have been impossible.
“It takes a lot of support from family and friends to get to where you are as an elite athlete. If you didn’t have that support you wouldn’t be able to get where you are,” Mortensen said. “I’ll be forever grateful to them.”