Germans know all about sliding, but not about slipping

Commentary

December 25, 2005|By RICK MAESE

You can have your Patriots. Take your Lakers, your Yankees, your UCLAs and Dukes. I don't want to hear about any of them because they have no place in this conversation.

If we're talking about modern-day sports dynasties, it all starts and stops with one team. But unless you sleep on a bed of snow, you probably have no idea how good the German women are at luge.

We're barely a month away from the Winter Olympics, and I can safely tell you that the Germans are the best thing on ice this side of a tailgate cooler.

Don't believe me? Still clinging to your Bulls pennant or wearing a throwback Islanders jersey? Check this out:

The German women have won 61 straight luge competitions. The streak dates eight years. They won gold medals at the past two Winter Olympics and are favored to win again in Italy.

In fact, at the 2002 Games, they won all three medals. In 1998, they won gold and silver.

Kind of makes you shrug when you think about the Cowboys or 49ers, doesn't it?

It's a sport that only resonates with American viewers for one week every four years. In Germany, though, some sliders can't walk to the neighborhood cafe without getting an autograph request.

In 1998, Georg Hackl, who won medals at five consecutive Olympics, was named the country's athlete of the year by German journalists, beating out Formula One racer Michael Schumacher.

Germany is about the size of Montana, yet it has four luge tracks. In the United States, there are only two. Germans pick up the luge when they're just 8 years old, and many grade schools offer luge as a competitive sport, just like soccer or volleyball.

"We are better," says Sylke Otto, "because all of the girls want to be better than the rest."

Otto isn't talking about being better than the rest of the world. She's talking about being better than the best on her team. Otto won gold at the Salt Lake City Games. Four years later, she had to scramble to make her national team.

In Germany, athletes know how fierce the competition is in luge. Many sliders quit the sport early and take up bobsled or skeleton.

Even if you're among the best, there are few guarantees. Barbara Niedernhuber won the silver at both the 1998 Games and the 2002 Games. She didn't even qualify to represent Germany at the 2006 Games.

Don't expect much sympathy from her teammates. They slide under the same flag, but the idea of team means something different there.

At last week's World Cup competition in Lake Placid, N.Y., a pair of American sliders hugged and laughed together after each qualified for the Olympics. Samantha Retrosi, 20, and Erin Hamlin, 19, are teammates, roommates and good friends.

I asked a German slider - Tatjana Hufner - how members of the German team motivate each other. I asked her whether they celebrate together, whether they're happy for each other.

"We are not close friends," said Hufner, who has been sliding since she was 9. "We are fierce competitors."

The German government runs all four tracks and also funds a facility that designs and manufactures the best sleds in the world, each custom-made with top-secret specifications. It employs 36 coaches across the country (compared with four coaches on the U.S. Olympic Committee's payroll).

It's another world and, as you might imagine, the expectations differ vastly from those on this side of the ocean.

Maybe the first five wins you can attribute to good luck. At 20, you start to get a little comfy standing on the tallest platform. By win No. 40, you run out of places to store your medals.

By the time the 60th win comes around, you barely crack a smile at race's end.

"We must win," said German coach Thomas Schwab. "We have good sponsoring from the government. The whole system knows we must win."

Their stoicism actually helps in this sport. When you're lying on a sled, flying down the track at 80 mph, the slightest movement could spell danger. Armed with the best technology, nerves as cold as the icy track and the knowledge that a half-dozen of your teammates want to take your place, the German women are better prepared and motivated than anyone else in the world.

With a smile, I asked the coach what happens if they don't win?

He laughed. "We don't know," he said.

I asked the same question of Otto, an Olympic favorite again in Italy. "I don't know," she said.

And the same question of Huf- ner, an Olympic newcomer. And the same answer: "I don't know."

That's because these sliders don't lose. Take your UCLAs and Notre Dames, your Celtics and Bulls, Steelers and Patriots.

Those teams certainly knew what it meant to win. I think I'll take the team, though, that has no idea what it means to lose.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

Read Rick Maese's blog at baltimoresun.com/maeseblog

Point after -- Rick Maese

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