Luge is a kind of informed relaxation. Gravity does the work, almost all of it. The driver simply lies back on his sled and gives in to free-fall, sliding through an iced chute at speeds of up to 75 mph and held on course through clever uses of centrifugal force.
At low levels of execution, let's face it, guidance is not that important. Not to downgrade the sport, but a reindeer has already negotiated the Olympic luge run in Hunderfossen, just north of Lillehammer. Last winter workers discovered huge tufts of fur from the run's midpoint to the finish line. Apparently the reindeer stumbled onto the run and took the ride of his life. Had you been there, you might have seen this set of antlers sail by at a terrific clip. Yeow! Blitzen!
Olympic-level luging among higher mammals is another matter. Yet driving remains largely a passive enterprise, with the very best lugers resembling lifeless slabs of meat coming your way at a great rate of speed, their bodies relaxed, yielding, quivering with every movement of the sled. There is even a phrase, "gelling out," to describe this condition.
So it follows that lugers are of a certain personality type: obviously fearless and attracted by speed but...passive. It's a brazen generalization, of course. But consider Duncan Kennedy, 25, of Lake Placid, N.Y., the best luger in the U.S. and among the top three men in the world. By his own admission he is sometimes too passive. Ranked second in the 1991-92 World Cup standings, he climbed onto his sled in Albertville and simply allowed the 1992 Winter Olympics to happen to him. His 10th-place finish—a bitter disappointment, despite the fact that it was the highest ever among U.S. men—was at first explained away as one of those days. But Kennedy, who had finished a similarly disappointing 14th in the 1988 Winter Olympics, wonders now if he wasn't too yielding, too relaxed in the face of important matters.
Perhaps it's revealing that in those years that Kennedy is able to summer in Santa Cruz, Calif., he surfs. Viewed very narrowly, his life appears to have been led without much conviction—riding waves, not making them. You can't say he has ever bailed when things got tough, because that's just not true. As a teen growing up in Lake Placid, he was believed to have an inoperable brain tumor and was given a death sentence. Seeing double, wearing an eye patch, moving awkwardly, he suggested to his mother that he could at least be the bottom man in luge doubles. The bottom man doesn't have to see.
The tumor turned out to be a blood clot that apparently dissolved on its own, and soon Kennedy was able to do what he does best: drive a luge. Yet, as good as he became at sliding, he even did that without conviction. He remembers staring at the Alps in the middle of the 1989-90 World Cup season and suddenly thinking, I would rather be snowboarding. He quit the U.S. team and retired to the snow parks of upstate New York.
When he came back to the sport, though renewed, he still seemed to be only along for the ride. A luge official remembers that Kennedy was admired by teammates for his ability but was never, despite his age and experience, considered to be a leader. Things just happened to him, and he made small rebellions and tiny reactive movements, and that amounted to a life-style as well as a sport.
So—odd, isn't it?—to hear that Duncan Kennedy recently held off 15 neo-Nazi skinheads in an Oberhof, Germany, pub, taking a stand for a black teammate and absorbing a beating because, suddenly, he noticed something very wrong. It amazes even him. He had been going through life aerodynamically, offering no upturned edges, no resistance that you could notice, just letting fast air wash over him. "In my life," he says, "I had never been in a fight, of any kind. I had never even been punched." Now he is so radicalized that he would rather preach the ignorance of racism to the foreign press than discuss sliding. "I've heard from the Fox network," he says. "If that would help...."
It began as a night of terror, so frightening that it was impossible to comprehend until much later. The team was in Oberhof, a resort about 150 miles southwest of Berlin, to train for the upcoming World Cup tour and the Winter Games. On the night of Oct. 29, several members of the U.S. team went to a pub to celebrate a teammate's birthday with a few beers. Among them was Robert Pipkins, who is known among lugers for three things: 1) He is an absolute speed freak, cranking his 600-cc motorcycle up to speeds of 150 mph; 2) he won a world junior title in 1992, when he was 19, just four years after picking up the sport and not even knowing if luge was a winter or summer enterprise; and 3) he is black.
Standing at the bar, Kennedy noticed two skinheads nearby, motioning to the Americans. Kennedy was somewhat alert to the possibility of trouble. Teammate Gordy Sheer, who is Jewish, had earlier noticed a swastika hanging in the bar and had returned to the hotel, where, he says, he later barricaded his door. Kennedy and Pipkins were not overly concerned. "We might think about heading on out," Kennedy told Pipkins, his roommate on the road. But before they could do the cautious and sensible thing, the bar quite suddenly filled with skinheads. Fifteen of them swaggered in, wearing leather boots and jackets with swastikas. "Marched in a line," remembers Kennedy. "Still, I didn't know what to expect."