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You wake up any parent with a 2 a.m. phone call from Calgary, Alberta, and there's going to be confusion. So 25-year-old Wendel Suckow should have expected his sleepy folks in Marquette, Mich., to be skeptical of his claim that he was the new world luge champion. Suckow finally had to put U.S. assistant luge coach Wolfgang Staudinger on the line. "Your son is the world champion," Staudinger said. And then, "Yes, we can't believe it either."
Who wouldn't be skeptical? Before last Friday, when Suckow slid off with the singles gold, no U.S. rider had won a medal of any kind at the world championships, which have been held since 1955. And Suckow, 15th in the World Cup rankings, isn't even the U.S.'s top slider. Duncan Kennedy, who finished 11th in Calgary, is.
That's why Suckow's two-heat total time of 1:32.094—a gasp faster than that of two-time world champ and '92 Olympic gold medalist Georg Hackl of Germany—caught the luge community by surprise. "This is big," trumpeted the U.S. Luge Association in a fax to America's sports editors. "Other than Olympic gold, this is the one to win, and an American won it."
Suckow got his start in luge in 1985, when his Boy Scout troop visited the Marquette luge run on a Monday-night outing. "The first time down, people either loved it or hated it," said Suckow last Saturday. "I remember laughing hysterically and saying, 'That was unbelievable'—pretty much the same as I did last night."
After winning a number of junior races in high school, Suckow made the national B team in 1986 and the A team in '88, and he finished respectably in the Albertville Olympics: 12th in the singles and ninth (with Bill Tavares) in the doubles. Last fall he made up his mind to concentrate on singles, a decision that initially proved to be a drag. "I had some of my worst results of the last three years," says Suckow, who attributed his decline to boredom. "Over Christmas, I changed my mental approach. I'd force myself to get nervous and fidgety, and then I'd calm myself down before the competition through relaxation techniques." Suckow's mind games worked in Calgary. Starting fifth, he set a track record of 46.051 on his first run, only to be surpassed by Hackl's 45.978. Did that make Suckow start fidgeting all over again? No. "I didn't have a care in the world," he said of his second run, a 46.043. "I was very secure in how I was going to slide."
Victory, however, came only when Hackl finished his second run in 46.222—.106 too slow. Following a medal ceremony during which Hackl and third-place finisher Wilfried Huber of Italy hoisted Suckow onto their shoulders, the world's best sledders devoted the rest of the evening to head-scratching.
Where does Suckow go from here? Lillehammer, for sure—his victory at Calgary qualified him for the '94 Games. Before that, though, he'll take his gold medal to Marquette to prove to the home folks that the little boy who used to ride a blue plastic toboggan down the hill behind the Suckow house is now the world's No. 1 slider.