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Hitting the Wall

Speeding after a medal, U.S. luge hopeful Duncan Kennedy slid out of control and crashed

The idea was to find more speed. Not a lot more speed was necessary. A few thousandths of a second would help. A few hundredths of a second would be even better. How long is a thousandth of a second? A hundredth? This subtle hiccup of time, this blink, would determine everything. The final round of the men's luge singles competition on Monday was not a time to be timid.

"You take the risks," first-day leader Georg Hackl of Germany said. "On a day like this you have to take risks."

The trade-off was the traditional devil's bargain of control for acceleration. The runners on the slim sleds were made as round as possible, giving away traction for freedom of motion. Steering was kept to an absolute minimum. Drivers lay flat on the sleds and tried to turn themselves into aerodynamic bullets, cramming their chins into their chests, refusing to lift their heads to get a good look at where the heck they were going, trying to keep their bodies to a perfectly flat line.

"You cannot see much," Hackl said. "You see only the tops of the turns, maybe some of the heads of the spectators. It is a hard business. All the way, you must see and watch and steer. And fight."

Each racer made two runs down the 1,365-meter course on Sunday and two more on this final day. Hackl, the 27-year-old who won the gold medal at Albertville, showed on the first of his two Monday runs how much speed would be necessary, whipping to a course record of 50.224 seconds. Markus Prock of Austria, the second racer, upped the ante, breaking that record with a run of 50.166 to move into first. How fast would you have to travel to win the gold medal? Faster than anyone ever had traveled here.

The fourth racer was the U.S.'s Duncan Kennedy. Drawn into the news last October when he was attacked by neo-Nazi skinheads in Oberhof, Germany, the 26-year-old racer from Lake Placid, N.Y., was in position to make another sort of headline. Maybe Hackl and Prock were out of reach, but third place and a bronze medal were definite possibilities, and who knows? Wasn't this a day for dreams? In Albertville, Kennedy had finished 10th and promised that the next time he had an Olympic chance he would attack.

He was speeding down the course, faster than he ever had gone, clicking off times that would have brought him the record at the start of the day and still might break Prock's new record. Prock is known for his fast start, but Kennedy and the Americans are known for their strong finishes. Faster, faster, Kennedy was on a pace to be very close to Prock. Faster, faster, he suddenly was out of the race.

Coming into the 13th of 16 turns, four-fifths of the course completed, he was flying, going too fast, too much control dealt away for too much speed. He hit the wall on the 13th turn and tried to compensate but had no chance, careering into the wall of the 14th turn, then flipping onto his stomach, holding on to the sled with one hand as if he were hanging on to the door of a moving bus. It was excellent footage for the late-night news.

"I was going for it," he said afterward, uninjured except for a charley horse in one leg. "I was right out on the edge, and then I crossed the line and I couldn't get back. Initially when I hit the wall, I thought I could save it, but when you're going that fast and the ice is that hard, it's very difficult. By the middle of the 14th turn, I figured I might as well relax. That's the way it goes."

In the end it went well for Hackl. He added another solid run of 50.491 and then watched as Prock faltered under the last-chance pressure, finishing seventh in the second run (50.552) to drop from gold to silver. Armin Z‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ággeler of Italy won the bronze. After four trips down the course over two days, seven racers finished within one second of each other. Hackl's total margin of victory over Prock was 0.013 of a second. A rough calculation of one inch per each thousandth of a second put Hackl 13 inches ahead of Prock after four races that totaled almost 3½ miles. That was how subtle the difference in speed was.

"This will go down as one of the greatest luge races in the history of the sport," said U.S. luge spokesman Bob Hughes. "You had everyone so close at the end."

"You do all these things, but you also need luck," said Hackl, who dedicated his medal to his coach Sepp Lenz, who lost part of a leg earlier this season after he was hit by U.S. luger Bethany Calcaterra-McMahon in a bizarre accident on the course at Winterberg, Germany. "I had the luck today, and Prock did not. Duncan Kennedy...he had bad luck."

The picture of bad luck was the seat of Kennedy's space-age racing suit. Tattered and frayed, the suit gave an indication of the friction created by sliding down an icy path at 80 miles an hour. How fast is too fast? The suit also gave an indication of that.

"What do you say after something like this?" a reporter asked Kennedy.

"This sucks," the racer replied. "That about sums it up."



After a good start, Kennedy began to career off course on the 13th turn.



At the 14th turn, Kennedy was heading for the wall—and for ultimate disappointment.



[See caption above.]