For Hackl, a matter of time

Luge: Five-time Olympic medalist Georg Hackl is out of retirement, and, at 37, giving the World Cup youngsters a run for their money.


January 04, 2004|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

LAKE PLACID, N.Y. - The racing white sausage is spinning his tale of woe after a hard day of sliding at World Cup luge.

"The track is very difficult and tricky," says Georg Hackl, shaking his head. "I'm an old man and not so good at the start. Today, it was hard to drive."

You'd feel sorry for the oldest competitor, the athlete who seemingly announced his retirement from the sport at the 2002 Winter Games, the man whose physique and nickname scream out "more beer."

Except for one thing: On this day, Hackl has won the silver, beating 29 other top sliders. Only 2002 Olympic gold medalist Armin Zoeggeler, eight years his junior, was faster down the mile-long icy chute.

"Retirement?" snorts retired U.S. slider Gordy Sheer after watching Hackl's performance. "It's almost a quadrennial event for Georg."

The German slider, at 37, is a man who has figured out not how to stop time, but how to make it march backward.

Hackl is the master of the psych-out, burrowing into the composure of competitors like a termite. A tinkerer who is not afraid of trying something new, even on race day, he always has other teams wondering about "something" on his sled, on his suit, on his feet.

That he is still putting down runs that belie his pudgy frame and age confounds, astounds and sometimes frustrates rivals who would like to move up in the world rankings.

The teary retirement announcement in Utah? The five-time Olympic medalist dismisses the memory with a wave of his hand and a mischievous smile.

"I'm back again," he says, clearly savoring the words.

As much as he loves the competition, he also loves the party that accompanies his sport. On the European circuit, he is a star. But even at the two U.S. World Cup stops - here and in Park City, Utah - Hackl is a fixture in local bars, hoisting a stein, or three, and teasing patrons and competitors in what he calls "Bavarian English."

"In a sport with zero recognition outside the Olympics, he's the standout," says Duncan Kennedy, a U.S. slider who retired in 1999 with more World Cup wins than Hackl in head-to-head competition. "In a record-oriented society, he's the standard."

But while Hackl has mastered the chronological clock, he admits there is nothing he can do about the one at the top of the track that marks each competitor's start time, the most critical part of a luge race.

To burst out of the start house, sliders launch themselves by pulling on two handles and then paddling on the ice with spiked gloves. It is a six-step process that athletes spend hours perfecting, watching video tape to detect flaws. A skillful driver with a .01-second advantage at the top can easily parlay it into a .03-second edge at the finish line.

With his short arms, the 5-foot-8, 180-pound Hackl oozes rather than explodes from the start, victimized by the laws of physics.

After he leaves the start house, however, Hackl enters another realm of jurisprudence where chunkiness is a virtue: the law of gravity. By staying as flexible as a veal cutlet, Hackl is one with his sled over the small bumps and ridges in the ice.

"He picks up speed. He just gets faster," Zoeggeler says.

Says Hackl: "I know what I can do and what I cannot do."

Hackl began competing in 1977, before he turned 12. Eleven years later, he was standing on the podium in Calgary, Alberta, bowing his head to receive Olympic silver. Between 1988 and his second silver medal in 2002, he won three gold medals - in 1992, 1994, 1998.

After beginning this season as slowly as one of his starts, Hackl has been moving up in the World Cup standings and is ranked fifth after his second-place showing in Lake Placid in mid-December. The 14-race circuit resumes Jan. 17-18 in Winterberg, Germany. After that, two World Cup events remain before the world championships in Nagano, Japan, on Feb. 13-15.

Hackl says he has not ruled out the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy.

"For sure. I'm still having fun with sliding and I'm still successful enough to make the German team.

"Sliding is my life. I don't need to motivate myself," he says, gesturing toward the track. "I am this."

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