Wilczak embraces fifth place

Finish ties U.S. best in luge at Olympics

Winter Olympics

Salt Lake City 2002

February 14, 2002|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

PARK CITY, Utah - Tom Wilczak promised that if his daughter didn't win a medal in luge, he'd hug her twice as hard.

And at the foot of the track, after giving it her best shot and finishing fifth, Becky Wilczak collected. She leaned over the jersey barrier that separated the athletes from the spectators and allowed herself to be enveloped in a fatherly embrace.

The 21-year-old slider's finish last night tied for best ever by an American at the Olympics, but it was not good enough to stop a German sweep of the medals.

Wilczak's father is desperately sick with autoimmune hepatitis and is on a waiting list for a new liver. Until late last weekend, it was doubtful he would be able to come to the event.

But the Salt Lake Organizing Committee arranged for a private jet to remain on stand-by at Salt Lake International Airport to take him home to Illinois if a donor was found.

"It was a great surprise to have him there and be able to give him a hug," Wilczak said of the finish-line embrace.

The German women continued their domination of the sport that has seen them win 29 of the last 35 World Cup events.

Two-time defending world champion Sylke Otto finished first, taking two of the four races over two days. For Otto, it was a sweet moment. The 31-year-old finished 13th in the 1992 games and wasn't good enough to qualify for the 1994 or 1998 games.

"I don't know what to say, I can't believe it," said the ebullient Otto. "Finally I've made it and it was a long way to this gold medal ... There is nothing missing from my career now."

Barbara Niedernhuber, the 1998 silver medalist and two-time silver medal winner in the world championships, had another runner-up showing, prompting her to joke, "It seems that this is my favorite place."

The 1998 Olympic gold medallist, Silke Kraushaar, won the bronze.

American Ashley Hayden finished eighth and Courtney Zablocki was 13th.

Otto, in first place at the start of the second day of competition, threw down the gauntlet, blasting down the course at 76 mph to set a track record of 42.940 seconds. If she made any mistakes, they weren't readily apparent.

Her two teammates followed with almost identical runs and couldn't gain ground. Niedernhuber even had a secret weapon - five-time Olympic medalist and master technician Georg Hackl - preparing her sled.

The gap of .472 seconds between the Germans and Wilczak before the start of racing yesterday widened as the young American made slight mistakes in her third run and bigger mistakes in her fourth run. In the only Winter Olympics sport timed to a thousandth of a second, her errors were magnified.

The German women praised the crowd of 13,249, saying their sport is often taken for granted at home.

"Many people consider our sport a fringe sport and our winning boring. If we do not win, what would people say then?" asked Otto. "If the others win, it's OK with us, but we cannot intentionally slow down."

More Olympics

Today's TV: Chs. 11, 4, 4-5 p.m. and 8 p.m.-midnight; MSNBC, 1-6 p.m.; CNBC, 6 p.m.-midnight

Mayor O'Malley tours Salt Lake sites. [Page 8d]

Skiing: Miller wins silver in combined. [Page 9d]

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