Still sliding after all these years

Luge: Anne Abernathy is 51 and broke but determined to win a spot in her sixth Olympics.

Luge

December 13, 2004|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

LAKE PLACID, N.Y. - In a sport in which a race against the clock is measured in thousandths of a second, Anne Abernathy is a calendar girl.

That's not a reflection on the time it takes her to get to the finish line on a luge track. To the contrary.

Abernathy, born during the Eisenhower administration, defies eras. In her skintight racing suit, she duels members of the Mountain Dew generation in feetfirst, double-dog-dare runs on tiny pieces of plastic.

With a broken elbow, multicolored bruises the shapes of mini-continents and scars from repair jobs and cancer operations, Abernathy feels a half-century old every time she tugs on her helmet. All of that, plus one.

But she is determined, at the age of 51, to compete in one final Olympics - her sixth consecutive - to break her record as the oldest female participant at the Winter Games.

And she'll do it as perhaps the only member of the U.S. Virgin Islands team.

"Grandma Luge" - it's a nickname hung on her in the early '90s when she was a mere 40-something - ignores track-side whispers that she should hang it up, get a real job or begin planning her retirement.

Abernathy shakes her head slowly.

"Why should I?" she asks. "I love luge. I love the people. I love the thrill. I love the rush. I love the challenge of each track."

One of her early coaches insists Abernathy is no charity case or sideshow.

"Grandmama broke the barrier by bringing small nations into luge," says Dmitry Feld, an official with U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton. "She's showing young puppies how it's done. She's earned her place in the family of luge by competing against some tough cookies."

Going into last weekend's World Cup competition in Calgary, Alberta, Abernathy was ranked 26th in her sport, ahead of much younger women bankrolled by powerful nations. She has new runners on her sled. The breaks and bruises? They'll heal.

Other athletes marvel at her staying power.

Five-time Olympic medalist Georg Hackl, considered the old man of luge at 38, rolls his eyes and smirks when her name comes up.

"She is too old, like I am too old," says the German, raising an eyebrow as if to dare dissent. "We are both still here."

"She looks good on the sled. She puts down good runs," says Brenna Margol, 23, a member of the U.S. team and ranked 12th in the world. "I can tell you I won't be sliding in 20 years. It's very exhausting."

Tricky, dangerous

Luge is difficult to master because, unlike skeleton, the sleds have controls that require precise steering with small shoulder and leg movements. Luge sleds are 10 to 15 mph faster than skeleton sleds, with runners that are sharp, rather than rounded. And unlike bobsled, where athletes are surrounded by a plastic shell, luge athletes are totally exposed.

"The sport kills your back," says Ashley Hayden, a U.S. slider on the elite senior team. "The starts are hard and the sleds have no shock absorbers, so every bump goes right to your back. I've only been sliding eight years. In 20 years, I can't imagine how much pain she's endured. I can't imagine how she hurts in the morning."

If sheer gumption could catapult an athlete to Turin, Italy, in 2006, Abernathy would be at the starting line, waiting for the competition to catch up.

But there's this tiny problem of cash flow. Money dribbles in from the sale of "Grand Fan" T-shirts and individual donations to her Web site, but gushes out to pay for coaches, plane tickets to Europe and food and lodging. Her corporate sponsor from the last Olympics has financial problems of its own.

"I'm broke," Abernathy says with a sad smile. "Some days, it's a question of paying for a training run or eating."

The Red Hat Society has adopted her, a comforting gesture. But the loosely formed national organization of baby boomers and senior women isn't likely to come up with the $150,000 it takes to be on luge's elite circuit.

But, "God puts you in a place and you have to go," she says, eyes sparkling behind her half-glasses. "I just don't know how I'm going to get there yet. "

Three times cancer has visited her and been sent packing. She bounced back to compete in the 2002 Winter Games after a horrific end-over-end crash a year earlier that rattled her brain pan, erased three years of her memory and caused seizures. Doctors said she would never drive a car again, let alone pilot a luge at 70 mph.

Little would suggest Abernathy would end up the iron woman of luge. After graduating from a Northern Virginia high school, she attended Salisbury State on the Eastern Shore and graduated in 1975 from American University in Washington with a degree in theater arts.

The classically trained singer toured the country, performing show tunes and popular music in nightclubs. On a trip to Lake Placid, N.Y., in 1983, she saw luge and was hooked.

Abernathy practiced with the U.S. "B" team, but decided to represent the U.S. territory, where she had dual citizenship.

Her training was disrupted in 1986, however, when she received a diagnosis of lymphatic carcinoma.

`Damaged goods'

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