Nancy Davis never thought she would meet a future Olympian while on a miniature golf outing.
Davis and her family were on vacation in August on upper Sacandaga Lake when her son became bored. He really wanted to go mini golfing, but it was raining and the family wasn’t sure if the local spot would be open.
“They opened for us, and we were grateful,” said Davis, a kindergarten teacher at Elsmere Elementary. “I kept looking at the wall where there was a picture of this kid in his (luge) uniform, and he looked familiar.”
Working behind the counter was Aidan Kelly, a 19-year-old member of USA Luge’s junior team, who was training at the Lake Placid facility for the coming year’s Olympic qualifiers. Kelly confirmed it was his picture on the wall and that he worked at the golf course when he wasn’t training.
Davis said being a teacher, she couldn’t pass up the opportunity to put Kelly in touch with her incoming students. Kelly said he would be delighted to email and video chat with her class when school began again in the fall.
Davis’ son, Robert, is in the fourth grade at Elsmere, and the two classes began meeting together when the time came to begin their correspondence with the luger. Robert looked up to Kelly, Davis said, and he wanted share the experience her students would be having with his own classmates. To start, each fourth-grader was given a kindergarten buddy to sit with and help during those times. Davis said she also wanted to explain what luge was – a winter sport where participants sled face-up at speeds of up to 87 mph – for those who didn’t know.
At first the meetings were simple, with the students asking questions and Kelly answering by email or video.
“It’s been great talking with the kids,” said Kelly in an interview via email. “I look forward to their questions each week, and I know Nancy worries that they’re bothering me or interfering with my training. To be honest ,I think I get as much out of it as they do. I love to see enthusiasm about luge, especially from such young kids, and I’d like to say a lot of them will end up trying it in the future.”
The students have asked him questions about how he got into luge to what color his uniform is.
“It was nice getting asked different questions than I usually get in interviews, so the questions they came up with were a nice change of pace,” Kelly said.
When one student asked about bullying, Kelly decided to give them an honest answer.
“I think many of them were surprised that I was bullied growing up, but if anything, I think it just fueled my passion for luge,” he said. “It got me out of my town, and I wanted the kids to know that if you are bullied or harassed, you just need to ignore it and find what really makes you happy, no matter what other people say. I mean I’ve even been bullied for doing luge … and now I’m going to the Olympics, so who’s laughing now?”
The students kept in contact with Kelly as he finished 6th in the Junior World Cup in Lillehammer, Norway, and as he became a Norton Junior National Champion. They also watched as he didn’t make the original cut for the team when racing in Lake Placid and eventually had to pay his own way in order to continue qualification rounds with the rest of Team USA. And they saw how he got distracted by a fan ringing a bell and crashed in Park City, Utah.
“It’s good that the students have been able to see him lose too,” said Davis. “At first they didn’t understand why he wasn’t winning all of the time.”
Davis talks about Kelly like a proud mother. She said she is happy with all of the life lessons Kelly is helping to instill in the students, and she is amazed by how well he’s taken some of the disappointing moments he’s faced during this season.
“I think he just feels blessed to have this shot,” she said.
Kelly, a Long Island native, talked to the kids about never giving up when trying to reach their goals, and to do their best. He also gave them a car analogy that has stuck with many of the boys.
“He said, ‘You glance in your review mirror and see the mistakes you’ve made, try to fix them and then move on.’ If you keep looking back, you could crash,” explained Davis.
Later, as the kids developed a better understanding of the sport, Davis would show them videos of Kelly and asked them for analysis of what he did right or wrong.
Unfortunately, because of the time difference, Davis said she does not believe the students will be able to watch Kelly’s attempts at an Olympic medal live in Sochi, Russia. The first Men’s Luge competition will air on Saturday, Feb. 8, on NBC between midnight and 1 a.m. She hopes she will eventually be able to find videos of Kelly’s runs online to show the kids.
“Really, I just hope the kids can learn something from my life experiences,” said Kelly. “I think I’ve experienced more in the past six years of doing luge than many people will in 20. I hope they can see that patience is a virtue and especially that life goes on, so you can’t take it so seriously.”