Posted: Wednesday February 15, 2006 4:24AM; Updated: Wednesday February 15, 2006 3:09PM
Courtney Zablocki brought U.S. women's luge within four-tenths of a second of Germany's high-powered luge machine.
TURIN, Italy -- She didn't win a medal, but U.S. slider Courtney Zablocki did something extraordinary during the women's luge competition at Cesana Pariol on Monday and Tuesday: She made a German luger sweat.
That's no small thing in this sport. The German women have been so dominant that they haven't lost a single World Cup race since 1997. Going into Turin, they had won 24 of the 33 Olympic medals awarded, and they had swept the event five times, including at Salt Lake City in 2002.
In women's luge, upsets are unheard of, especially by such a spartanly decorated team as the U.S., which has won only two international medals since 2001.
Another sweep by the Germans was a foregone conclusion here. That is until Zablocki, who was ranked ninth in the World Cup standings, unexpectedly landed in fourth place after Monday's two runs, just .004 of a second behind German Tatjana Huefner. The 25-year-old Zablocki was an Olympic vet (she finished 13th in Salt Lake) and she loved Cesana's difficult, demanding track. Could Huefner, a 22-year-old Olympic rookie who had a history of battling nerves before races, handle the pressure? Was it possible that just two days after Tony Benshoof, the USA's best hope for a first-ever singles luge medal, came up short, the stars would align for the U.S. after all?
Well, nicht. Huefner admitted to some team staff members that she was a little nervous before Tuesday's final two runs -- who wouldn't be, sitting at the top of a notoriously unforgiving course that would cause nearly a dozen racers to crash or lose control of their sleds? But she had spent the last two years consulting a psychologist who had helped her overcome her pre-race jitters, and little seemed to bother her on Tuesday. Huefner threw down two great runs, including a final blistering run of 46.981 that was the fourth-fastest of the competition, to capture third and join teammates Silke Kraushaar (silver) and Sylke Otto (gold) on the podium.
And Zablocki? Disappointed though she was with the result -- "so close, and yet so far," she'd say -- she was satisfied with her two final runs, which averaged 47.235 seconds. "The first run wasn't great but it wasn't horrible, either, and that second run was pretty good, so I'm happy with that," she said.
She did well. The Germans, as always, did better. What is it that makes the difference? Zablocki can't put her finger on it. "Sometimes I look at them and I say, 'Why in the heck did they just get away with that?' They go so fast. Truthfully, I can't tell a lot of difference. Maybe they are a little more comfortable on the sled." Certainly, she added, "They have a lot of depth and a lot of experience. Both the Silkes are 10 years my senior. How do you compete with that?"
In this sport, experience seems to trump all else. The 36-year-old Otto and the 35-year-old Kraushaar are both products of the old East German sports training system, which famously funneled promising children into intensive sports training schools. The two have been training in luge for six hours a day since they were 13. Huetner, who was just six when Germany was reunited and was never part of the GDR system, has been luging since she was nine. The sport has been such a focus for Otto that four years after her boyfriend, Ronald Grund, proposed to her after she won a gold medal in Salt Lake City, she still hasn't gotten around to marrying him. After Otto sealed the gold in Turin, Grund wrapped her in a German flag and told her, "Please finish with the sports now."
Even if Otto does leave the sport after one more year, as she said she was "70 percent sure" she would, her departure will hardly herald a new era of drama in women's luge. Though the U.S. is inching closer to breaking the Olympic medal drought (Zablocki's fourth was the best Olympic finish ever), the Germans won't yield easily. Aside from their depth and experience, they have far better access to training facilities. If you are in Germany, you're little more than an hour and a half from one of four luge tracks. The two in the U.S., in Park City and Lake Placid, meanwhile, are nearly 2,000 miles apart.
There's no question the U.S. is making progress in singles luge. "I think we're really getting a lot stronger in our program," says Zablocki. For now, though, the sign of true arrival on the international scene -- an Olympic medal -- remains so close and yet so far away.