5:05pm

Sun July 1, 2012
Why Music Matters

Breaking Records To A Velvet Underground Beat

Weekends on All Things Considered continues its "Why Music Matters" series with Olympic luger Christian Niccum. Niccum says music was the key to one of his first accomplishments in the sport.

"I was 15 years old, in Berchtesgaden in Germany," he says. "It's the oldest artificial luge track in the world, and it's also the most difficult."

Daunted by the course's many sharp turns, Niccum turned to something borrowed for inspiration.

"My coach said that there's a rhythm that you have to catch — you have to be in the rhythm of the track," Niccum says. "At that time, I had a lot of mix tapes that I stole from my brother that I was playing in my Walkman, and one song had a special influence over me. The way it felt to me was just total peace and total relaxation and total focus."

That song was "Heroin," from The Velvet Underground's 1967 debut. Niccum says he was so wrapped up in it that he didn't notice what he had achieved.

"I didn't recognize what I did until I heard my other teammates — they watched the run — came up to me," he says. "Ultimately, I ended up breaking the track record and getting the fastest time ever down on this track."

"Why Music Matters" is produced by Anna Boiko-Weyrauch with support from the National Endowment for the Arts, in collaboration with the Association of Independents in Radio and KEXP-FM in Seattle.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LAURA SULLIVAN, HOST:

We're going to stay with the Olympics for another installment in our occasional series called Why Music Matters. Every now and then, we'll bring you the stories of music fans in their own words about how songs or bands have changed their lives. Today's story features an athlete from the other Olympics.

CHRISTIAN NICCUM: You can't lose your cool. You can't lose your focus. There is no break. There is no eject button. You have to finish the run. My name is Christian Niccum. I'm on the U.S. luge team. I always compare to being a high wire, tightrope walking act, except you're doing it on your back going 90 miles per hour.

(SOUNDBITE OF A LUGE)

NICCUM: I was 15 years old in Berchtesgaden, Germany. It's the oldest artificial luge track in the world, and it's also the most difficult. There's four really tight turns and each one does basically a 180. You have to steer up the curb and then you steer out. We go and bird it at the time and then come down. My coach, he said that there's a rhythm that you have to catch. You have to be in the rhythm of the track. At that time, I had lots of mixed tapes that I stole from my brother. I was playing in my Walkman. And one song had a powerful influence over me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEROIN")

THE VELVET UNDERGROUND: (Singing) Going to try for the kingdom.

NICCUM: The way it felt to me was just total peace and total relaxation and total focus. You know, time and space I guess just became balanced for me at that time.

(SOUNDBITE OF A LUGE)

NICCUM: I didn't recognize what I did until I heard my other teammates that they watched the run. And they just came up to me and they go, Oh, my gosh - that was so amazing. I can't believe you did that. You came out of that curb and your head was all the way back and you were blind. You weren't looking where you're going, but the line was perfect. And ultimately, I ended up breaking the track record and getting the fastest time ever down on this track.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "HEROIN")

NICCUM: Honestly, I really owed it to that song because I listen to it over and over and over again. And that song was the song that set the tone.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEROIN")

UNDERGROUND: (Singing) I was born a thousand years ago.

NICCUM: Turn out to be The Velvet Underground song, "Heroin."

(LAUGHTER)

NICCUM: I remember, at 15, I didn't know what heroin was. People think luge, Oh, that's an adrenaline sport. You're crazy. You're adrenaline junkie. And it's actually - it's the opposite. When I'm doing luge, I have to be completely calm and completely relaxed. So I find listening to music helps me get into the rhythm and in the mood that I need to be in, to navigate the course.

SULLIVAN: That's Christian Niccum with why music matters. Our series is produced with Anna Boiko-Weyrauch.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEROIN")

UNDERGROUND: (Singing) Where a man can not be free of all of the evils of this town.

SULLIVAN: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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