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I had watched the sport of luge only a handful of times, even though I grew up in the shadow of the Olympic luge track in Lake Placid, N.Y. In February, when I tell my parents that I want to write an article about luge from a firsthand perspective, my mother eyes me as only a mother can.
"In fact," I caution, "next month I'd like to race in the U.S. National Luge Championships. Maybe I'll go to the Olympics. Who knows?"
My father smiles and chides, "We've always thought you were a luger."
Undeterred, I make arrangements to take up luge.
When I was a collegiate ski racer for Williams, I had gotten to know many winter-sports officials at Placid's U.S. Olympic Training Center, and I'm now willing to put those connections to work. One of those connections tells me, "You want to do a story on luge? I can arrange that." And he does. He arranges for me to undergo a week's training and to top off the experience by sliding in the 1991 nationals in March.
Now, with my frosty breath leading the way, I trudge up Mount Van Hoevenberg for my first day of instruction. Stretched before me is the luge track, a giant piece of white ribbon candy, carefully arranged on the hillside. Warily I examine the massive icy walls.
Just as I am about to turn and run, a smiling hulk of a man, wrapped head to toe in U.S. luge team apparel, bellows, "There you are! Terrific! I've got a sled and helmet for you." He is Todd Scanlon, a development coach for the team, and he's here to explain the basics to me.
The Lake Placid track, he points out, is slightly less than 1,000 meters long. It consists of 15 curves, alternately banked left and right, connected by varying lengths of straightaway. It is, by reputation, tighter and rougher than most world-class tracks. The first few turns are abrupt and force the slider to deftly change direction. The middle of the course, known as the Labyrinth, is basically a straight chute with four moderate blips. The bottom portion is a series of wide, high-banked curves, which, because of the speed a sled is traveling at this point, slingshot the racer from one turn to the next.
"Once you learn to anticipate the curves, you'll be able to relax and enjoy yourself," Todd tells me.
Enjoy myself? That's hardly a priority. I just don't want to break anything.