KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Hurtling down an icy incline and heading into a hairpin turn at 60 mph with little more than a helmet, a wooden sled and a thin layer of lycra between him and the hard, frozen surface, Torrey Cookman is laser focused on every miniscule move his body makes.
“It’s a rush and at times kind of scary, but I guess that’s where the adrenaline comes from,” he says.
A member of the U.S. Junior Natural Track Luge Team, Cookman, a first-year mechanical engineering student, has spent the last few winters competing against the sport’s top athletes at the World Cup series in Europe. In fact, he was in Italy last year when he completed his interview for Western’s prestigious Medallion Scholarship and learned his result on his way back home.
“When I flew from Munich to Chicago, I turned airplane mode off and got an email from (Western). And it said,‘You’ve been awarded this Medallion Scholarship,’ and I was pumped!”
The full-ride scholarship, which is the University’s most distinguished merit-based award, is what sealed Cookman’s commitment to Western.
Growing up in Marquette, Michigan, with its picturesque outdoor landscape and bountiful winter snow, he considered staying close to home and going to nearby Michigan Tech. But the scholarship valued at more than $89,000 over four years—it’s among the largest merit-based programs in American higher education—paired with Western’s world-class engineering programs and facilities quickly fixed his future on Bronco country.
“I have been very pleasantly surprised. I came down from the U.P. (accustomed) to doing a lot of outdoor activities and unsure there would be anything to do down here, but I have found a lot. And I’ve been loving it!” he says, noting the many mountain bike trails and paths to wander around Kalamazoo and Southwest Michigan.
THE MAKING OF A SLIDER
While Winter Olympics audiences are accustomed to seeing artificial track luge with its high-banked curves that guide athletes down the course, natural track luge is a different beast. The latter sees lugers—also known as sliders—navigate a flat, natural ice track that is less steep than an artificial track but also generally includes many more curves.
Negaunee, Michigan, about half an hour from Cookman’s hometown, is home to the only certified natural ice luge track in North America. He first visited with his Cub Scout troop in elementary school and had a blast.
“My school started an after-school program, so I hopped on that because what’s more fun than sledding in fifth grade? And from there, I just loved it and stuck with it.”
Cookman has become a veteran on the international circuit, competing as a member of Team USA since 2017. This season, he built on his success of past seasons, consistently finishing within the top 20 in each Junior World Cup event and setting a record for the highest place a member of Team USA has ever reached in the Senior World Cup. Partnering with his younger sister, Katie, for the team race, he even scored a fifth-place finish in the World Championship.
“It’s such a great feeling, and it means a lot (to represent my country). I really enjoy the competition,” he says.
Despite competing at an elite level and hopping around Europe to compete almost daily—from Austria to Germany, Italy and Romania—on a two-month tour of tracks through the Alps, Cookman didn’t have to put his academics on ice. With supportive faculty and the flexibility of asynchronous online classes, he’s been able to continue as a part-time Western student during spring semester.
If anything, luge is bolstering Cookman’s academic prowess. Races are often determined by fractions of a second, making math and science skills—from aerodynamics to angles—integral for elite sliders to gain an edge on the competition.
“Lines, for me, are one of the most important things. You want to be in the right spot at the beginning of the corner, make sure you can hold that spot into the middle of the corner and then release stop turning toward the outer part of the corner—to preserve your speed,” he says.
Natural track sliders don’t have the luxury of riding up the walls around the curves because their track is flat, so they use metal spikes on their gloves and shoes to control their speed.
“If you don’t have the correct form on the slide, you’re likely going to tip over, or when you go out of the corner, you can smash into the boards. Or the sled, if you make too jerky of a movement, will quickly change direction, and that hurts!”
ON TRACK FOR ACADEMIC SUCCESS
When he’s not engineering the perfect execution on the luge track, Cookman is angling for academic success. A Lee Honors College scholar, he enjoys the added benefit of having a built-in tutoring space in his residence hall—the Eldridge/Fox Hall Student Success Center—that offers academic help in math, physics, chemistry, computer science and engineering.
An active member in FIRST Robotics since middle school, Cookman has also found new purpose through Engineers Without Borders, a registered student organization focused on service through engineering, as well as on Western’s Sunseeker solar car team.
“(Sunseeker) was something I saw when I was touring Western and knew I wanted to do, so when I came and saw the team at Bronco Bash, I decided to join,” he says.
The organization also aligns with Cookman’s career goals. Once he’s ready to hang up his sled, he’d love to shift his focus to sustainability, developing new systems to create renewable energy. It’s a passion fueled by his deep connection with the outdoors—something he hopes to protect for generations to come.
“This year—and for the past three years for that matter—(Team USA) has had to ‘chase the ice’ across Europe as the weather becomes warmer and warmer and tracks begin to melt,” Cookman says. “I feel that by engineering sustainable energy systems, I will have an impact on the environment that will help my sport stay a viable winter activity. ... This way I will also be able to give back to a sport that has given me so much.” ■