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Olympian Martins Rubenis Shares His Spiritual Path to the Podium

Olympic luge athlete Martins Rubenis thanks his practice of Falun Dafa for helping him win his medal.

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Among the ranks of athletes from the world’s wealthiest nations competing in luge at the winter olympics, Martins Rubenis of Latvia is a bit of an outlier. While his competitors had the likes of BMW and Ferrari to thank for their sleds, which reach blistering speeds on the downhill ice tracks, Rubenis proudly stood on the Olympic medal podium not only as an athlete, but also as a designer, an engineer, and (the real secret to his success) a meditator.

Without big sponsors or wealthy supporters, and with a sled mostly built by his own hands, Rubenis won bronze at the 2006 Olympics. However, a debilitating back injury almost ended his chance at a medal before the games even began.

Martins Rubenis standing on the Olympic medal podium
On the podium with fellow Olympic bronze medals winners of the luge team relay event in February, 2014.

The mind and body of a champion

“Around 2004, I got a really bad back injury. I couldn’t really perform well after that. Even after I went to different doctors and people who might help me, relief would only come for a short period of time. I really couldn’t understand why,” Rubenis remembers.

He had risen to the most elite level of Luge, but his hyper-competitive mentality combined with his injury started a chain reaction in his mind and body that threatened to bring his entire career to an end. That’s when his coach recommended the mind-body practice of Falun Dafa.

“The first time I started doing Falun Gong exercises, I just immediately felt a dramatic change,” Rubenis says. “All those blocks and all those bad things, which were collected in my body, just blew away and disappeared at that moment. It instantly improved my performance.” 

Falun Dafa is a traditional Chinese practice for mind and body that consists of slow-moving exercises, meditation, and a life-philosophy based on the principles of “truthfulness, compassion, tolerance.” 

The exercises improve the flow of energy in the body, which helped to heal his injuries, while the traditional Buddha-school teachings helped him understand how his mindset was preventing him from getting better. “Now I can see that it was because of my mentality, my approach to things. Now I understand that if my mind is right, my body follows.”

Martins Rubenis added daily practice of Falun Dafa’s meditation and exercises to his relentless training schedule, and nine months later, he won his nation’s first medal at the Winter Olympics.

Martins Rubenis meditating
The meditation component of Falun Gong, along with its guiding principles, gave Rubenis a competitive advantage.

Life lessons from the ice

Olympic lugers reach velocities that would put the police on their tail if they found themselves on level ground. Cars have a metal barrier, airbags, and brakes to protect the driver. Not so on a luge. Imagine yourself, just laying down on top of a sled and shooting down a track of ice at 150 km/h and faster. There’s no time to think, no room for error. It’s a sport where mind, body, and machine all have to be in harmony with each other. 

Olympic luge athlete Martins Rubenis
Seen here competing in Sochi, Rubenis achieved speeds of 150 km per hour and faster on Olympic tracks.

“Many people think that luging is just lying in a sled and waiting until it brings you down, but it isn’t like that. A sled is like a living organism, all moving and working together with the body of the athlete. The most important thing is to build the sled to be one with the body,” he said.

The ancient cultivation practice taught him life lessons that he brought to the ice with him, and in turn, he realized what the sport was trying to teach him about life. “When I get really stubborn about something in my life, when I just plow straight ahead, everything is very hard. It’s the same with sliding. If I just think ‘this is the only way to get down,’ sometimes I steer too much, or the curve won’t let me go that way. So I had to learn to feel the track and feel the way it brings me.” 

Top athletes constantly search for ways to improve their physical and mental performance. Rubenis was no exception. “I remember before, I was fighting against others to be better. Once I started practicing Falun Dafa, I realized that it had to have something to do with me. I had to make the fight internal, make it about improving myself, improving my performance, and improving my approach to what I do.” 

Martins Rubenis credits that shift in mindset for not only recovering from his injury, but becoming better than ever. The pain went away quickly, and he says that when he stopped worrying about the competition and focused only on his own improvement, he miraculously rose to the top of his sport.

The Innovative Spirit of Martins Rubenis  

Of course, while Rubenis credits Falun Dafa for finally getting him to the Olympic podium, his full journey to becoming Latvia’s Sportsman of the Year goes back much further.

Latvia was still part of the Soviet Union when a young Rubenis took up the sport of luge. As he grew up, his nation gained independence, but communism had nearly destroyed their culture and economy. He lived a simple but hard life, traveling an hour each way to the luge track, sometimes only being able to practice at midnight. 

His dedication paid off, but as he reached higher levels, he just couldn’t compete with the racers from more technologically advanced countries. As the saying goes, “necessity is the mother of invention,” and his designs ended up having a ripple effect through the sport.

“I started looking at my sled and trying to feel what should be changed,” Rubenis said. What’s most incredible is the fact that he doesn’t have any technical education. “I tried to feel how they work. It is more like an artistic approach than a technical approach,” Rubenis said with a laugh. 

While other luge teams have top engineers to measure computational fluid dynamics, conduct 3D modeling, and run wind tunnel tests, Rubenis would just lock himself in a friend’s workshop in Riga. Companies like Dow in the US and McLaren in the UK craft futuristic alloys for the sled runners that represent their nations. Rubenis on the other hand, worked with whatever steel, plastic, and spare parts he could find (and afford). Tech-savvy and mechanically minded Latvians chipped in where possible, and he used what his grandfather taught him about building model ships and motorbikes and forged his own path to greatness.

Olympic luge athlete Martins Rubenis and his luge
Rubenis designed and crafted almost every part of the sled that carried him to victory at world competitions.

It took his country decades to get rid of communism, and decades more to heal from the devastation it caused. Rubenis is proud to have been part of that process. In 2006, he proved that freedom and innovation win races, rather than the state-controlled sports administrations he grew up with. And moreover, he showed that ancient practice of meditation, something that has nothing to do with technology or technique, holds the key to true success.

Martins Rubenis is now retired, but his practice of Falun Dafa, his innovative spirit, and his heart of a champion continue to guide him.

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