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One Luge Success

Bonny Warner faced a lot of very tough sledding, but now she could become America's first medal-winner

Before Bonny Warner, America's brightest hope for an Olympic medal in luge, takes an icy roller-coaster ride on her sled, she puts on layer upon layer of clothes: underpants and undershirt, a T-shirt, a long-sleeved turtleneck over that, two pairs of long Johns and two pairs of socks.

Next comes the 12-inch-wide elastic band called a girdle. Warner uses it to flatten her breasts. "Better aerodynamics." she says.

She steps into two cord loops and pulls them up to her thighs. From the loops she runs two lines up the front of her body and clips them to her helmet; this prevents her head from snapping back as she encounters tremendous G-forces in the curves of the luge run.

Then she puts on a 15-pound weight vest. Warner is 5'8", 160 pounds, one of the stockiest women in luge, but the extra weight creates a little more friction between the ice and her 48-pound sled and, thus, a faster ride—by, oh, a few hundredths of a second. In world-class luge competition that can mean the difference between first and fifth place.

Warner pulls on boots made of foam and rubber over her two pairs of socks, and then, behind each knee, she wraps a Velcro strip with rubber surgical tubing attached. She hooks the back of her boots to the tubing to keep her toes pointed forward as she whips feet-first down the run. Another aerodynamic trick. Then she wrestles her body into the tight one-piece Lycra suit that gives a luger that extraterrestrial look.

To protect her exposed parts from the bumpy ride, Warner inserts rubber pads, across her forearms and on the outsides of her upper arms, between her suit and her underclothes. Next she puts on a helmet and fastens it to the harness. Then she flips down the face mask.

Finally come the pigskin gloves. Under the tips of the gloves' first three fingers she affixes small metal spikes. When she begins her descent down the track. Warner will dig her hands into the ice to give additional propulsion to her start.

Mind you, all of this preparation doesn't mean that Warner will be the best-dressed luger in Calgary. Far from it. She and the other members of the U.S. team frequently make their own gear and mend their bright blue suits with carpet tape. Their flimsy sleds are usually hand-me-downs held together by electrical tape.

But the no-frills nature of this sport fits the down-to-earth Warner, a woman who made it in luge from the bottom up. At 25 she is the best American luger ever and ranks among the top five women in the world. She finished 15th in the 1984 Winter Olympics at Sarajevo. Last year at Lake Placid. Warner was the first U.S. luger, male or female, to win a World Cup race, and she finished the season tied for third in the overall standings, also a U.S. milestone.

Warner's success is remarkable because only 250 Americans compete in the sport, and there is only one refrigerated track in the country, at Lake Placid. She has made it her mission to try to change those figures and for the past seven years she has been a big promoter and money-raiser for luge in the U.S.

But her most important contributions have been the clinics through which she has introduced more than a thousand newcomers to the sport. She holds them in Palo Alto, near Stanford University, her alma mater. Each summer for the past four years, neophyte lugers, ranging in age from 7 to 51, have careened down a hilly street in Palo Alto on roller sleds, picking up the fine points of the sport. "Once I get them on a roller sled." she says, "they're hooked."

Warner's students are members of the Western States Luge Club. As the club's founder and president, Warner collects dues and designs club T-shirts and jackets. "Luge is so incredibly important in my life," she says. "Deep down I guess the real reason I started the clinics was because I didn't have anybody to share luge with."

Perhaps Warner was also looking for someone to take care of. She refers to herself as the club's den mother and makes no secret of her strong maternal instincts. She has had lots of practice in nurturing. Her parents were divorced when she was 4, and when she was 13, her mother. Joy, moved into a residential hospital because of a back problem. For almost two years Warner raised her brothers—Robbie and Brendy, two and nine years her junior, respectively—doing the cooking, cleaning and grocery shopping. She was allowed to sign checks drawn on her mother's bank account and, at 14, obtained a special driver's license so she could haul her brothers to and from school. "The real power," Warner says now, "was in writing excuses [for absences) from school."

Though the responsibility forced her to grow up quickly, it also made her feel socially awkward among her peers, something she has not yet overcome. She was too busy to go on dates and missed her high school prom. She had no clue about makeup, perfume or the latest hairdo, and new dresses weren't in the budget.

"I was different from the other kids," Warner says. "I didn't fit in. I got good grades, but I tried to play them down. I didn't wear nice clothes. I needed my mother to tell me how to act like a girl, and she wasn't around. I used to cry myself to sleep, wondering what was wrong with me."

Her good grades, however, got her admitted to Stanford. Some good luck got her to Lake Placid. She won a contest to select California's representative in the relay that transported the Olympic flame to the 1980 Winter Games. The flame was flown from Olympia. Greece, to Virginia, and then 50 runners, one from each state, carried it to Lake Placid, covering 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) in nine days.

Warner took a quarter off from school and spent two weeks in Lake Placid with free room and board and unlimited access to Olympic events. Luge was the one competition she didn't see. When the Games were over, a fellow torch-bearer dared Warner to join in a clinic that the U.S. Luge Association was sponsoring on the Lake Placid run. "I'd seen bobsled and loved it, so I thought I'd give luge a try," Warner says.

Dressed in a jogging suit taped at the ankles, and with hockey pads stuffed in the sleeves, she took her first ride. She began at the tourist start, just four curves and about 200 meters from the bottom of the 750-meter track. It was a short, sweet, 10-mph trip. "I banged a lot of walls," she remembers. "You've got to be sturdy for this sport, and I'm about as sturdy as they come."

That one ride did it. Warner had to have a sled. She spent two weeks working as a maid at a Lake Placid hotel, selling Olympic pins and making sandwiches at Captain Billy's Whizz Bang Deli to pay the $500 for a racing sled. That summer she talked her way into the Squaw Valley Olympic Training Center and begged Steve Mannix, an ex-luger, to train with her.

In the fall, her luck with contests struck again. She won $5,000 when her name was drawn from among 1.8 million entries in a contest sponsored by Levi's jeans. "A few months earlier I'd stuffed the ballot box at the mall [in Lake Placid]." she says. So Warner quit the Stanford field hockey team—she had been a goalkeeper her first year—and dropped out of school for two quarters. Then she bought an airline ticket to Europe, where she hoped to train that winter. "I had to see how good I could get." she says. "I was obsessed."

With backpack and sled in tow, Warner traveled to Königssee, West Germany, site of famous bob and luge runs. "On the first day I went to the top," she says. "I was so naive. I slammed face first into the curves three times."

She emerged with cheeks bloodied and elbows raw, but shortly afterward she met Sepp Lenz, the West German national coach and a regular at the track, and he offered to coach her. Two months later Warner entered her first international race and found herself seated in the Königssee start house next to Vera Zozulia of the Soviet Union, the 1980 Olympic gold medalist. "I thought, Wow. I can touch her!" Warner says.

Race organizers insisted that Warner compete as a representative of the U.S. She declined. "I don't even know anyone on the U.S. team." she told them, quite honestly. Eventually she was allowed to enter as an unattached racer. She finished 19th out of 20. The 20th had crashed.

Undiscouraged, Warner returned to Lake Placid in January 1981 and made the U.S. junior team. As luck would have it, a few weeks later she was back at Königssee competing in the Junior World Championships. "Because I had trained on ice for four months," Warner says. "I was ahead of anybody from the U.S." She finished 17th among the 25 lugers, and at the end of the 1980-81 season she was named to the national senior team. The rest is luge history.

Warner's major competition for a medal at Calgary will come from the East German women Steffi Walter and Cerstin Schmidt, both World Cup champions, and Yulia Antipova from the Soviet Union. If she does win a medal, she will be the first American to do so in the 24 years luge has been an Olympic sport. Warner is not disheartened by the odds. To her the sport is more than just medals.

"All my life I've felt like a square peg in a round hole," she says. "And then luge came along. I've always needed to stick out—to be noticed and feel accepted. Luge does that. I'm finally somebody."