Suckow speeds into contention in luge WINTER OLYMPICS

February 12, 1994|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,Sun Staff Writer

LILLEHAMMER, Norway -- One run at 80 mph through a bunch of curves and up and down 10-foot walls gave Wendel Suckow a thrill of a lifetime, and a rush for the gold.

"I had a zillion heartbeats, but with my body in complete sync with my mind," said Suckow, "cause if you aren't focused, you crash. And sometimes when you crash, you could die. I was in love immediately because this was so insane. My desire immediately was to be a part of the U.S. Olympic team."

He has accomplished the mission twice.

Suckow, 26, has gone from a child who built toboggan runs with snowbanks in his backyard, to an inexperienced Boy Scout making his first run, to one of America's favorites to medal in the luge at the 1994 Winter Olympic Games in Lillehammer, Norway.

"At times I still can't believe all the things that have happened to me," said Suckow. "I think I'm still dreaming."

It all began in Luge Capital, USA, aka, Marquette, Mich., where Suckow started building sleds and a course in his backyard. There were no Olympian visions then, only a kid's desire for fun.

"In 1983, luge wasn't very well-known," said Suckow. "I mean, I didn't know what it was, or what people were talking about. I was as ignorant to luge as the whole world. I was more interested in having a good time."

But two years later Suckow, the sports nomad, made his first luge run as a member of Boy Scouts Troop 302 in his hometown.

"In a sense, as soon as I got on a luge run for the very first time, I'd been doing it my whole life," said Suckow, who was on the scouting trip with neighbor Chris Thorpe, who has qualified for the U.S. Olympic team in doubles. "I picked it up very quickly.

"I'd been doing sports all my life, a little bit of football, a little bit of basketball and nothing really ever appealed to me. My heart never said 'this is what I want to do.' I got hooked on my first luge run. I just knew it was for me, even though I was an ancient 18."

In 1985, Suckow was tabbed Rookie of the Year by the U.S. Luge Association. A year later, he made the National "B" Team and then continued his rise by finishing fifth at the 1988 U.S. Olympic Trials.

That was only the beginning.

He finished fifth in singles and 10th in doubles in the 1991-92 World Cup standings. At the 1992 Winter Games, Suckow was only the third U.S. luge runner to compete in singles and doubles at the same Games. He finished 12th in singles, which matched the previous best U.S. men's showing, and was ninth in doubles with Bill Tavares.

The real shocker, though, came in February 1993. Suckow won the World Luge Championship title in Calgary, Alberta, the best finish by an American in the sport's history.

"I couldn't believe it," said Suckow. "This was the first Cup where everyone was there, and I couldn't believe I won. Then finally I was like, 'I won!,' you know, rah-rah stuff.

"It kept me up all that night. I was doing a lot of soul searching. Where do I go from here. How do I get there? Can I do this again?"

Some answers came the following week at the final World Cup event in Lake Placid, N.Y. Suckow placed second after the first run and fifth overall against a world-class field.

Those two races made Suckow an instant celebrity, especially back home. He was 6 feet and weighed 190 pounds. He had blond hair and blue eyes. CBS Sports did a documentary on his life. He was on "Good Morning America." He appeared at schools. He even hired an agent.

All of this for a guy who competes in the luge?

"That was a real crazy time," said Suckow. "I've never been in the spotlight before, especially with luge. Then suddenly, everybody wants to talk to me. People are knocking at my door, asking me to stop here or stop there. That was the hardest thing to do because no one knocked on my door before."

But fame can bring pressure.

Suckow had to cut down on pre-Olympic interviews to find more practice time. A chronic rotator cuff problem has caused him to concentrate more on his starts.

The stardom has been tempered, but he can soar with a gallant, medal run in Lillehammer.

"There is no pressure from the standpoint that I have already proved that I belong among the best, and that's what I've been building on during the summer," said Suckow.

"The Lillehammer track is great. It resembles the one in Calgary. It's more of a gliding track, which is very well-suited for me. It's very fast. So it will be an interesting race, and I'm just as excited as when I took that first ride as a Boy Scout."

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