From ABRAHAM KENMORE / WATERTOWN DAILY TIMES
Douglas G. Bohl, associate professor of mechanical and aeronautical engineering, with a photo of him luge racing outside his office.
POTSDAM — Douglas G. Bohl is clear that credit for winning the first-ever men’s single luge medal belongs entirely to Chris Mazdzer, an athlete from Saranac Lake who recently won a silver medal at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea. But Mr. Mazdzer won that medal on a sled designed in part by Mr. Bohl and his colleagues at Clarkson University.
“(Mr. Mazdzer) did the hard work; we just applied a little math,” Mr. Bohl said.
An associate professor of mechanical and aeronautical engineering, and a luge racer himself, Mr. Bohl has worked with the United States Luge Association and, more recently, with former Olympian slider and current sled builder Duncan Kennedy, to improve the luge sleds. While the hard work for the victory may have been done by Mr. Mazdzer, any improvements to the sled can help give an edge in a sport with razor-thin margins of victory.
“Luge is timed to one-thousandth of a second; it’s one of two winter sports that are timed to that precision,” Mr. Bohl said. “When you’re talking about differences of thousandths of a second, there’s not a lot of margin.”
Mr. Bohl worked with Brian Helenbrook, a Paynter-Krigman endowed professor in engineering science simulation, and master’s student Bryan Heckendorf before the 2014 winter Olympics. They concentrated specifically on the shell, the fiberglass platform that sliders lie on as they race down the ice track.
Luge sleds are usually handmade, often by experienced sliders, and Mr. Bohl and his team thought they could expand on the experience of other builders by adding some mathematical modeling.
“What’s difficult about a luge sled is they’re really hard to measure,” Mr. Bohl said. “They’re curvy, they’re smooth, there’s no well-defined edge.”
Moreover, the engineers had to build a model that included both the sled and the slider to get an accurate picture before they ran computer models.
“Chris (Mazdzer) was our test case,” Mr. Bohl said. Using Mr. Mazdzer’s dimensions, they were able to build a model they could test for aerodynamics.
The engineers then had to work out how to optimize the two elements of the sled — how streamlined it was, and, more importantly, how comfortable the slider would be while operating the sled.
“We wanted to make a happy slider,” Mr. Bohl said. “The comfort is the most important part.”
Mr. Bohl does his research in fluid mechanics and has done research into everything from humpback whale fins to water decontamination as well as luge sleds. The basic physics for all of them, he says, are the same.
“We get to be involved in a large variety of problems,” he said.
Mr. Bohl got involved in luge after his son began competing.
“We were luge parents for one winter,” Mr. Bohl said. After tiring of standing around in the cold only to glimpse his son for two seconds at a time, Mr. Bohl began learning to slide himself.
Although he has not yet been out this winter, he served as the president of the Adirondack Luge Club for four years, stepping down this July.
As a luge designer and competitor, Mr. Bohl can appreciate just how hard Mr. Mazdzer had to work to win his silver medal.
“He’s working in a sport where they don’t end up on Wheaties boxes, they don’t end up in commercials,” Mr. Bohl said. “He is a wonderful guy, and this is about him.”