Zoeggeler is golden host

He brings home Italy's first gold of Games, holding off Russian

Benshoof of U.S. is 4th

Luge

Winter Olympics

February 13, 2006|By CANDUS THOMSON | CANDUS THOMSON,SUN REPORTER

CESANA PARIOL, Italy -- Hometown boy made good.

In the biting mountain cold, Armin Zoeggeler, the reigning Olympic luge champion, warmed Italian hearts last night, winning his country's first gold medal of these Winter Games.

As a raucous partisan crowd cheered, rang bells and danced, Zoeggeler held off Russia's Albert Demtschenko, winning all four races with a combined time of 3 minutes, 26.088 seconds.

"I still don't believe that I won the medal," said Zoeggeler, who also has silver and bronze Olympic medals. "This was the most difficult medal of my career. The pressure was a lot."

American Tony Benshoof finished fourth, tying the country's best finish in singles luge and capping the best year of his career. The United States has not won a medal in men's singles since the sport was added to the Olympics in 1964.

The sky erupted in fireworks and Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi called the victorious police officer.

Demtschenko, 34, who had a reputation of meltdowns in big races, finished just 0.11 behind Zoeggeler. Latvian long shot Martins Rubenis was 0.247 back to earn the bronze, his country's first-ever Winter Olympics medal.

The most decorated man in luge, Georg Hackl, ended his career with a seventh-place finish. Hackl, 39, has three gold and two silver medals, but recently has been hampered by back and arm injuries. Those problems coupled with his notoriously slow starts doomed Hackl's campaign to become the first Olympian to win six consecutive medals in the same sport.

The crowd waved banners bearing Hackl's likeness and gave him a rousing send-off.

Afterward, the man affectionately called the "Racing White Sausage" for his round shape, said he was relieved his career is over.

"There have been a lot of ups and downs in my career and I realize that the most important part of my life in luge is over," he said through a translator. "I proved today that I was still one of the best drivers."

The night - in fact the entire two-day event - belonged to Zoeggeler, 32, who took the lead Saturday and never looked back. The first day he laid down two blistering runs that gave him a comfortable cushion going into last night's finals.

A great technical slider who drives with pinpoint precision, the man nicknamed "Ziggy" was virtually flawless the second day of competition as well.

His countrymen erupted in a wall of sound as Zoeggeler crossed the finish line, pumping his fist. He jumped from his sled and grabbed an Italian flag to wave to the crowd.

"During the race I knew that I needed to stay really focused as I did because if you make a mistake, everything is finished," said Zoeggeler. "The Russian was really near and I knew that if I made a mistake, I was really finished."

Rubenis, 27, began the second day just .045 behind third-place Benshoof and vaulted past him on the first run. The silver medalist at the 2003 world championships then held on and beat Benshoof by 0.153 of a second.

"I went after it," said Benshoof, 30. "I slid very well. I was happy with my results and my performance. I actually thought it might have been enough to get on the podium."

U.S. slider Jonathan Myles finished 18th and Christian Niccum was 23rd.

"I still think we've arrived internationally as a competitive nation in luge," said Benshoof, adding that he expects to stay in luge until the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver.

With his fourth-place finish, Benshoof tied Adam Heidt in the 2002 Winter Games. That year, Benshoof finished a disappointing 17th.

After some soul searching, he returned to competition with a renewed sense of purpose and confidence, and saw his performances rise. This season, he replaced Duncan Kennedy as the country's most decorated slider.

"To the media, fourth and 24th are the same place," Benshoof said. "But in my eyes there's only three guys better than me today, and I'm very happy with that."

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

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