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.
Beginners start at Curve 10, no higher. This is the entrance to the twisty lower portion of the course, Todd explains. As sliders improve, they commence their runs from higher and higher on the hill. The Ladies Start is situated between Curves 3 and 4, near the top. Men race from the very top of the track.
Todd places a training sled, which is lighter than a racing sled—22 pounds as compared with 48—on the ground. I lie face up, supported from shoulders to buttocks by the sled. I use my neck and abdominal muscles to keep my head and legs from touching the ground. "You have to keep your head back as much as possible. Lift it just enough to see past your feet," Todd explains as my neck muscles begin to throb. "To steer to the right, press your right shoulder and left leg down." When I stare blankly, Todd tries a different tack. "It's like downhill skiing," he says. "Weight on the outside ski, lean your shoulder in the direction you want to go."
When my name is announced over the P.A. system, I climb onto the track at Curve 10. As Todd stabilizes the sled, I slip in my orange mouth guard, adjust the too big helmet and lie back, feetfirst. Gently, Todd pushes me down the track. Slowly the sled enters Curve 10, carrying me to the left. I clamp down on my mouth guard and my hands clench the stabilizer bars of the sled.
Entering Curve 11, a 180-degree turn to the right, the sled picks up speed. I think to myself, This is fun! Suddenly, and seemingly without provocation, the sled begins to fishtail. This is less than fun. Confusion sets in. Push left to go right—or is it the other way? The wind billows my jacket, turning it into a blinding parachute. The sled screeches against the icy walls as I ricochet down the track.
In a flash, it's over. As the sled slows and my jacket deflates, I sit up smiling and laughing. Scrambling out of the track, I announce to a group of coaches, "This is great! When can I go again?"
"After instruction. Lots of instruction!" says Dmitry Feld, a Russian emigrant and the U.S. junior team's manager.
I seek out Tim Nardiello, the national team's program coordinator, for advice. Patiently he talks me through the track, explaining when, where and how much to steer in each curve. "If you make a mistake, even if you hit the wall, you have to put it behind you," he says. Right.
In the first two days I take 12 runs, gradually moving up the track to the top of the Labyrinth. Each run is preceded by an overwhelming fear, just shy of panic. Whereas the best drivers are so relaxed that they seem to be asleep on their sleds, I feel as though I'm in the throes of a violent dream.
I start thinking, Why am I doing this? I don't have to do this.
With each run I grow more confused about how to steer. In the difficult curves nothing seems to work. I sometimes lie back in frustration and let the sled go where it wants to. By the end of the second day I have battered myself silly. Despite my padding—soccer and lacrosse pads on my forearms, calves, elbows, even ankles—I am bruised and beaten. After one particularly troublesome run, Nardiello asks, "How come you're not so smiley anymore?" I shoot him my best I'm-a-New-Yorker-don't-mess-with-me look.
Two days later, I am approaching the chute dubbed the Hog Pen. It's called this because, at one time or another, it has made every slider scream. I have, until now, found this stretch of track, from Curves 10 through 13, particularly difficult. I have likened this part of the course to the Times Square subway station at rush hour—my commuter nightmare, always getting shoved this way and that.
But this time, for the first time, I drive Curves 10 through 13...well, if not perfectly, at least correctly. It's thrilling, nothing less than thrilling.
Gradually, I move farther up the track. When I start sliding from Curve 5, I find I'm carrying so much speed into the bottom of the course that the G-forces are snapping my head back against the ice. I think to myself: Finally found a use for that weird neck exercise on the Universal machine.
The first time I start from the top of the women's course I am so startled by the turbo boost of speed at Curve 7 that I slip off the sled in the Labyrinth. The sled careens down the track ahead of me, and I slide on my stomach for more than a hundred yards. On my second attempt from the Ladies Start, I steer too late in Curve 12 and continue to head straight when the course veers left. I belt the wall, and the sled lands on my head, crushing my chin against the ice. "Holy cow, that smarts!" I scream. Or something to that effect.
I am so shaken I want to cry, but when the track announcer asks, through the P.A. system, whether I am O.K., I gamely offer a thumbs-up. Everything aches as I slowly sit up. Where's my sled? Who cares. Where's my chin?
After sliding for a few days from the Ladies Start—five runs a day, for a total of four minutes of action over six hours—I grow accustomed to the speed and am no longer afraid. I learn to drive the track, rather than just hang on for dear life. Seldom, now, do I smash into the icy walls. I start to remove my pads, one by one. I'm beginning to feel like a slider, not just a survivor. After one particularly clean run I pick up a walkie-talkie to converse with coaches stationed along the track. "Hey, Dmitry, how'd I look in Curve 5?"
"You were so quiet coming down I almost didn't see you," he radios to me. "On this run, you make like a big Russian sausage."
"I don't get it."
"Is good. Sausage is good."
Finally, after all this training, I am ready. I am a sausage. I'm all set for the big day: Senior National Team Seeding Race Day, the first of the preliminary heats for the nationals.
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.
But when I open the curtain to my window at the Mirror Lake Inn the next morning, I find that it is raining. And hard. When I arrive at the track, I see an inch of water sluicing down it. The race is postponed.
In an effort to calm my nerves, I take a run around the lake. I tell myself that layovers are part of the sport. After all, some of the 1988 Olympic races were postponed when those warm Chinook winds blew through Calgary. "Tomorrow," I keep thinking.
But when the rain hasn't stopped by the next day, the event is canceled.
Back in New York City, I receive an interesting, bemusing postscript to this adventure. One day a fax arrives at my office from "Bullet" Bob Hughes, the marketing director of the U.S. Luge Association. He writes that because of the weather problems in Placid, the seeding race times are being used to select the entrants for the January 1992 U.S. Olympic Luge Team Trials. He continues: "You're one of 19 women who have qualified for the trials. Congratulations and break out the champagne!"
My first thought is, Forget champagne, somebody get me a racing sled! My second, and prevailing, thought is, Hey, it was fun while it lasted. This bruiser's luging days are over.
After brief instruction, the rookie slider displays a fine head-back, toes-pointed form.
On the eve of the race Schmidt polishes the runners.
Schmidt welcomes whatever counsel Scanlon has to give.