My parents surprise me by showing up at the track. I spend several minutes convincing them that luge only looks dangerous. "Once you learn how to steer, it's safe," I tell them. "I'm a veteran now, see. I'm a wizened pro."
With a wave, I hop onto the truck and ride to the top of the track. A half hour before the start I zip up my neoprene booties and secure my helmet. I am the 14th woman in line to slide. When No. 12 begins her race, I imagine the course one final time. When the 13th slider leaves the start ramp, I grab my sled, place it on the ice and ready myself. I am as calm as I can be, under the circumstances. The announcer calls, "Track is clear for Number 14, Schmidt."
I secure the face shield to my helmet. The sound of my breathing is overwhelming—Darth Vader on deck. Then, without hesitation, I'm off. For the first time I use my head more than my body to get down the course. I do everything I'm supposed to do. It's my best run ever, and it's over in a moment.
I climb out of the track. My parents, I notice, are smiling and laughing with one of the coaches, Thomas Kohler, a former East German Olympic and world champion. As I approach, Kohler asks me in stilted English how long I have been sliding.
Holding up seven fingers, I laugh.
"Seven years," he says and smiles. "Not bad for seven years."
"No, days," I explain.
He thinks about that for a moment and asks, "Days?" I nod. "Is very good. Very fast for training sled. You need a racing sled—heavier, faster. You need a racing sled, no?"
No. Not yet.
I am the first racer in the second heat and am still on my trusty trainer. Relaxed and mentally focused, I improve upon my first run by nearly half a second. Kohler offers me a hug after this run and says, "Seven days. Days, yes?" The following morning my confidence continues to soar, and my runs feel faster and faster. I learn that my last time was 40 seconds and change—one of the fastest recorded all year on a training sled. I am pumped, now, to race in the U.S. national championships the following day.