At 52, sliding into retirement

`Grandma Luge' will make history in Turin before stepping away from the chute for good

December 19, 2005|By CANDUS THOMSON | CANDUS THOMSON,SUN REPORTER

LAKE PLACID, N.Y. --Famous Ice Age mammals: woolly mammoth, mastodon, saber-toothed tiger, Anne Abernathy.

While the other three are extinct, Abernathy is on her way to a sixth consecutive Winter Olympics. At 52, she'll break the record she set in 2002 as the oldest female competitor at the cold-weather Games.

"Grandma Luge" - a nickname she picked up when she was a mere 40 - will put on the colors of her native U.S. Virgin Islands one more time because she has a message to send to everyone of her generation.

"When you're 50, you're not dead," she says, eyes twinkling behind the half-glasses perched on her nose. "Get off your butt and go do something."

Abernathy has been following her own advice for nearly two dozen years, skittering feetfirst down mile-long icy chutes for more years than most members of the U.S. women's team have been alive. The next-oldest woman on the international circuit is 17 years her junior.

Luge, the French word for sled, is one of two Olympic sports timed to one-thousandth of a second. Yet instead of being an exclusive club for young turks with catlike reflexes, sliders often get better with age and experience. Markus Prock of Austria retired in 2002 after six Olympics and three medals. Germany's Sylke Otto, 37, won the 2005 world championships in February and is ranked second in this year's world standings. And Georg Hackl, 39, the most decorated slider, began his Olympic run in 1988, the same year as Abernathy.

Abernathy isn't in their rarefied league. She doesn't pretend to be. Yet every four years she manages to win a spot at the Olympics fair and square.

"I'm not a joke," she says firmly. "I didn't start out a joke."

Now, though, after an emergency room's worth of broken bones and rattled brain cells, Abernathy is listening to her body. It's time to leave the world-class competition to the kids, say, those in their 30s.

"I'm ready for it to be over," she says, sitting at the U.S. Olympic Training Center, nursing a bandaged right ankle that later is diagnosed as fractured. "I'm ready to retire."

But she's not going quietly with a sheet cake and watered-down punch.

After crashing and flipping her sled on three consecutive training runs last week on the Lake Placid track, Abernathy qualified for the Turin Olympics at Nations Cup, her last opportunity.

"In 23 years of luge, I've never had as much pressure. I thought I was going to throw up," she says. She gathered herself at the starting line and said a quick prayer: "Lord, you got me here. Come along for the ride."

And less than a minute later, she was at the bottom of the Mount Van Hoevenberg track with her Olympic dream intact.

A classically trained singer, Abernathy attended Salisbury State in the early 1970s and supported herself by performing show tunes and popular songs in nightclubs. She took a marketing job at a Northern Virginia telecommunications company and might still be there if not for a 1983 ski trip to Lake Placid, where she was invited to slide on the luge track.

Her companion at the time, a Baltimore firefighter, broke both legs. But Abernathy loved the speed and adrenaline and took a leave of absence from her job to spend a summer in the instructional program. She was good enough to go to Calgary, where her iron-woman streak began.

Praise for passion

Though some luge officials privately snicker at Abernathy's doggedness, others - many of them athletes - praise her.

"She has passion and a love for the sport," says U.S. slider Ashley Hayden, 24, ranked 12th in the world. "She works hard at it. It's not a joke to her. I admire her commitment."

Dmitry Feld, her first coach and now a U.S. Luge official, says she gave smaller nations a reason to believe they could compete in the Winter Games and continues to be a dignified presence on the circuit.

"She's broken barriers, no question about it," he says.

Last February, on the track she'll have to steer at the Olympics, Abernathy was one of 14 sliders to crash and one of nine who required hospital treatment.

"I got off easy with five broken bones in my left foot, a fractured left wrist, broken right shoulder and mild concussion," she says dryly, reciting her injuries like someone reading from a shopping list.

A Brazilian slider suffered a severe head injury and was placed in a coma to prevent further damage. The accident left him blind in one eye.

Olympic officials ordered a portion of the track redesigned, and athletes say the curve is much improved.

Abernathy is no stranger to physical obstacles. A gruesome end-over-end crash in 2001 the equal of any NASCAR wreck erased three years of memory, triggered up to 12 seizures a day and required therapy to retrain her brain's motor skills.

She has survived bouts with cancer and 13 knee surgeries.

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