Two dozen spectators dressed for arctic exploration stand and shiver on Mount Van Hoevenberg on the outskirts of Lake Placid, N.Y. Snow drops from the slate gray sky. The temperature dips to single digits.
The fans listen for the distant thunder that turns into a winter storm. They watch for the flash of color and light that whips off an icy curve at 80 mph.
They wait for one of their own.
Duncan Kennedy comes sliding down the track, a tumbling human ice cube dropping into a frozen drink. He lies rigid on a sled that is part seat, part rocket. One second, he is there, his toes pointed, his arms lying like logs by his waist, his helmet-covered head pinned back by instinct and force.
Blink, and he is gone.
This is luge, and this is its American star.
For the first time in Winter Olympics history, the United States is HTC bidding for gold in a sport that most people never have heard of, much less seen. Riding a 48 1/2 -pound sled feet first down a curving course of ice, Kennedy is expected to upset the sport's European order with a -- of made-in-the-USA style.
Kennedy is a reformed luge brat turned 24-year-old elder statesman. Once, he snarled at veterans, talked of winning medals, and either did or did not throw his helmet after finishing 14th at the 1988 Olympics. He still wears an earring during races. Now he counsels teammates and provides politically correct answers to ticklish questions.
"Luge is becoming more recognized as an Olympic sport and not some Olympic sideshow," Kennedy said.
Kennedy and America's luge program have grown up together.
When luge became an Olympic sport in 1964 at Innsbruck, Austria, the U.S. team consisted mainly of American soldiers who were posted in Europe. It wasn't until 1979, when the refrigerated luge run was opened at Lake Placid, that the United States put together more than just a token Olympic effort.
Kennedy and his family moved from Berlingame, Calif., to Lake ** Placid just before the 1980 Olympics.
"We lived in a log cabin," said Kennedy's mother, Betsy. "The only man-made structure we could see was Turn 2 of the luge run."
Duncan made his way to the track after the closing ceremonies of the Games and took his first run. He was a natural. Within a year, he was the national junior champion. Within two, he had won the country's first international medal, placing second in the Junior Grosser Preis Race in Igls, Austria.
"I liked the freedom," he said.
But Kennedy's carefree style rankled some of the team's veteran competitors. They didn't like his cockiness. Worse, they didn't like losing to him.
"Some of the older guys would play mind games with him," said former U.S. Olympian Frank Masley. "If he had one bad run, the guys would ask him, 'Well, how bad was it?' "
Kennedy also came with the sport's first Luge Mom. Betsy Kennedy followed her son's career closely, showing up at
practices, and often making trips to Europe.
"I never interfered," she said. "I have four sons, and I always watched them in all the sports they played. Duncan was no different."
Actually, Kennedy was different, at least by luge standards. The sport is filled with technicians, who use a subtle blend of mind power and shoulder strength to direct the sleds. Boasting is forbidden.
But, early in his career, Kennedy got by on raw talent and raw speed. He also told anyone who asked that he had the best shot among the Americans to get a medal at the Calgary Games.
But, less than a month before the Games, Kennedy suffered a deep wound in his right hand when he scraped a nail that was jutting out of the Lake Placid track. In Calgary, he finished the four-run competition in 14th place. When he got out of the sled the final time, he jerked violently at the fastener on his helmet. Some thought he threw the helmet.
"Everyone still thinks I threw it," he said. "I didn't. I was ecstatic. I drove some excellent races there."
A year later, though, Kennedy had burned out. He left the World Cup circuit frustrated and tired, and returned home to America.
He took up snowboarding, traveling to weekend races in Vermont. He paid his bills by working at the Cuningham Ski Barn in Lake Placid.
"Guys I worked with would give me a hard time," he said. "Someone would walk in the store and ask, 'Do you know Duncan Kennedy? What's his problem?' Actually, I was having a blast, to tell you the truth. When I left luge, I left it behind."
But not for long. He returned to the world circuit for the 1990-91 season and finished seventh overall, the best American result. More important, those around the sport say that Kennedy returned as a more mature and refined competitor.
"He came back a new guy," said Bob Hughes, the U.S. Luge marketing coordinator. "Other people looked up to him."
Now, Kennedy is preparing for a whole world to watch his performance on the tight, twisting Olympic run in La Plagne. At a pre-Olympic event there last year, Kennedy was fourth. But, this year, he enters the race as the leader of the World Cup circuit and the favorite for a gold.
Defending Olympic champion Georg Hackl of Germany will be in France. So will Austria's Markus Prock, Kennedy's fiercest World Cup rival.
"Twelve years of sliding and a lot of hard work will go into the race," Kennedy said. "I'm sure not in this sport for the money."