A day or so after the Trials began, Hushla received a long-distance call from a man in Kansas who complained that he had not known the Olympic luge team was being selected. Hushla asked the man if he had ever been on a luge, and the Kansan replied that, no, he hadn't, but as a child he had frequently sledded "on very, very treacherous hills." Hushla's voice rose in anguish as he pleaded with the man in Kansas, "Good God, don't come here, please don't. Believe me, this is no place for you to be. Please stay home!"
A luge is indeed no place for a mere veteran of the Flexible Flyer. The sled, also called a Rodel in Europe, is a precisely machined vehicle, delicate as a watch to tune, according to experts. It is designed to be a dangerously efficient projectile as it speeds down the track. The typical luge is 50 inches long. Its runners are made of laminated ash with steel strips bolted on (the strip metals can be changed depending on ice conditions). It has a small canvas or braided-strip seat on which the rider reclines—on his back. His feet are curled around the front runners. He steers with ankle pressure and with steady pulls on a rein he holds in one hand. His helmeted head lies back over the ice, behind the little sled. Speeds of 100 mph are not uncommon. The two-man luge is not much longer, usually five inches or so. One racer simply plops down atop his partner and the top man steers. Quite a number of lugers have died over the years. Nearly all of them suffer at least one broken bone at some point early in their careers.
The lugers who came to Lake Placid were a motley mix; no general characteristic or cultural stamp would encompass them all. There were adventurous teen-agers who had made no more than half a dozen runs in their lives; housewives; a commercial artist who specialized in stained-glass panels; a professor of psychology from Southern Illinois University, along with his strapping son, 18, and his pretty daughter, 15, who ultimately retired with some broken toes. There was a home-improvements entrepreneur from Boston who drove a magnificent silver Bentley, vintage 1952, and wore a handsome sweater that marked him as a member in good standing at the exclusive Cresta Run in St. Moritz. There was Dave LeBoutillier, 35, a rollicking TWA pilot, and Carla Leake, 23, a frail brown-eyed TWA stewardess who said that if she made the Olympic team she would have to call in sick. There was Jim Moriarty, 34, an ascetic competitor who had quit his job as an electronics technician in St. Paul 18 months ago to pursue the elusive joys of the luge and was living on $3 a day in Lake Placid. There was Helen Thayer, 39, wife of an "agricultural helicopter pilot" from Seattle. She was a world-class discus thrower who had competed for New Zealand, Guatemala and the U.S. and was now as broad as a Pittsburgh Steeler because she had deliberately gained 30 pounds to give herself extra bulk on the runs.
There was Kathleen Homstad, 24, a red-haired housewife from Goleta, Calif., who began luging when she was 15 and who boasts the best finish ever registered by any American in international competition—an eighth at the 1970 world championships at K�nigsee, Germany. There was red-haired Jim Murray, 29, from Montana, a veteran of Vietnam, an ex-ski instructor and ex-school teacher. There was Terry O'Brien, 32, a tough broad-shouldered Air Force technical sergeant, also a veteran American luger, having competed along with Homstad and Murray in two previous Olympics. For most of the past decade Sgt. O'Brien had tried to arrange Air Force assignments which would put him near a luge run. This was a lot easier said than done. He finagled a job in Plattsburgh, N.Y., but while he was stationed there the Lake Placid run was forbidden to lugers, so when Denver was awarded the '76 Games, O'Brien transferred to the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs—only to have the proposed luge run near Denver shot down by the voters. He is now stationed in Portsmouth, N.H., only 250 miles from Lake Placid, and he is happy because he is almost religious about the luge. "It is something that is measurable in terms of true perfection," he says. "There is nothing else in my life that is measurable in such a way. Luging is more to me than anything else in the world." (Of those mentioned above, only O'Brien, Murray, Moriarty and Homstad were to make the team.)
American lugers long ago grew accustomed to the second-class conditions that surround their sport. As they prepared for the first runs at Lake Placid, Hushla reached into a barrel and pulled out numbered racing bibs. Most of them read WORLD BIATHLON CHAMPIONSHIP, and the numbers ran totally at random. "Someone has stolen a lot of these," said Hushla.
The run itself was bumpy, even after the snow was shoveled off. The electric-eye timer was broken. Only the lower half of the course was open and it had just started operations, almost a month later than originally planned. On the fifth day of training and Trials the ice was very fast, and a series of spills sent several contestants to the hospital in Lake Placid. But there was only one ambulance at Mount Van Hoevenberg, so each time it made a run to the hospital there was a delay of up to an hour since regulations forbade lugers to run unless an ambulance was standing by. The accumulated snafus and inconveniences probably would have broken the spirit of a more pampered group of athletes, but lugers are so accustomed to humiliation, discomfort, poverty and misfortune that it is possible they would not know how to function in finer circumstances. Indeed, it would be hard to imagine any group of athletes that has been more deprived.
Lugers have no national luge association of their own, so they are represented internationally by the AAU. This amounts to very little representation at all, and lugers swear that the AAU's budget for their sport in all of 1975 came to $37. For the past two years Hushla has had to dig into his own pocket for money to buy the medals awarded to national and North American champions. His total budget from the U.S. Olympic Committee for the entire pre-Olympic training and Trials in the U.S. was $5,700—which allowed him to pay Coach Rogowski the princely wage of $3 a day. Last year, during an international competition at Innsbruck, American lugers found themselves literally begging for money. Jim Moriarty had finished a run and lodged a protest citing excessive snow on the course. Under international rules, a money bond must be posted with each protest—in this case 500 Austrian schillings ($30)—to ensure against a rash of nuisance protests. There was no one at the run to post a bond for the Americans. Officials refused all personal checks and all currency except schillings. The team dug into its own pockets and came up short. At last the Americans were forced to wander among the spectators, panhandling, to raise the money to back Moriarty's protest—which was ultimately upheld.
U.S. lugers traditionally have been almost as short of technical expertise as of money. The only training manual available was written and illustrated by Hushla, who has never been down an entire luge run in his life. "I don't have to actually make a start in a race to know what a start in a race feels like," he says. Last winter in Hammarstrand, Sweden three U.S. lugers tried to turn spy in a desperate attempt to add to their technical backgrounds. They befriended a Polish trainer with a weakness for booze, plied him with vodka and Scotch one night until they convinced him he should examine their sleds and tell them what might be wrong with them. The Pole agreed and brought with him several special instruments for properly tuning luges. While he turned his back to drink and joke with one crafty American, another luger-spook made rapid sketches so they could reproduce the tools at home. Alas, they have not yet done this because they found it would cost about $500 to duplicate the instruments.
For the past several years the official U.S. luge manager—duly selected by the AAU—was a former marine major whose specialty in winter sport was speed skating. Enraged by the man's combination of arrogance and ignorance, the lugers arose against him and managed to prevent the Olympic Committee from appointing him luge coach for the 1976 Games. It was a landmark revolt, led by Frank Hill, the lugers' athlete representative on the Olympic Committee, and by Olympic diver Micki King. This was the first time in history that U.S. athletes have actually been effective in contributing to the selection of an Olympic coach.
Because of this tiny insurrection, a month before the team assembled for its Trials in Lake Placid it had no coach at all. Then along came the pale young man whom American lugers may come to call the Polish Angel. Piotr Rogowski is a resourceful chap who signed his own emigration papers and fled Warsaw in 1974. He flew to New York, where his brother lives, found a job as a file clerk and began a rigid routine of studying English at night school so that he might someday land a job as a physical therapist, his specialty in Poland. This would be an ordinary story of a courageous refugee establishing himself in a new country, except that Rogowski also happened to have been the second-best luger in Poland in 1965. It also happened that he gave up competition because he was selected to spend full time designing the training program and development techniques for the Polish luge team. This was not an assignment to be taken lightly; luging is a major sport in Poland. There are 600 members in the Polish luge association and an elite national team of 15, which practices the sport every day, all year round. Polish lugers work with medical specialists, aerodynamics engineers, metallurgical experts, chemists and an impressive assortment of other scientists and engineers in an attempt to perfect their equipment and themselves. They use wind tunnels, centrifugal force machines and non-winter luges mounted on ball bearings to work out their kinks. And Piotr Rogowski was the expert on luging in Poland. As he said in Lake Placid, "The Polish government pay me, but everybody else on luge team was voluntary. Even now the Polish team is working my plan. What I say to American team, I don't have no problems because what I say I can prove."