U.S. women's luge team making inroads on Germans

OLYMPICS

With 97 World Cup wins dating to 1997, the Europeans have dominated the sport, but the Americans have been laying the groundwork to challenge that supremacy.

February 11, 2010|By Candus Thomson | Baltimore Sun reporter

Reporting from Whistler, Canada — The joke among the women of luge is that the highest non-German finisher at any race is the real winner, so strong is that team's grip on the top of the podium.

Erin Hamlin is tired of being a punch line.

"Yeah, it gets old," says Hamlin, 23, of Remsen, N.Y. "We improve every year, but we still have a place to look up to."

With 97 consecutive World Cup wins dating back to 1997, the German hold has engendered that kind of black humor.

Last year, Hamlin struck back with a gold medal at the World Championships on her home track at Lake Placid, a win that stunned the Germans, who even admitted their shock to reporters in an uncharacteristic moment of candor.

In World Cup competition this season, Hamlin finished third three times, making her the only non-German to reach the podium.

Hamlin doesn't have to beat all three German competitors -- Tatjana Huefner, Natalie Geisenberger and Anke Wischnewski -- just one to have a chance at the bronze.

That, Hamlin believes, is within reach.

Since 1988, the U.S. women have advanced in the Olympic standings. Bonnie Warner Simi finished sixth in Calgary; Cameron Myler moved up another notch in 1992, and Becky Wilczak-Brand matched that in 2002. And in Turin in 2006, Courtney Zablocki finished fourth, .765 seconds behind bronze medalist Huefner, the German who is the favorite to win gold here on Tuesday.

"It doesn't happen overnight," says Simi, a major force in the development of U.S. luge athletes. "My first international race, I was in last place and happy to be there and competing. It was a matter of closing the gap.

"Being one second behind the Germans and then a half-second back until you're right there with them."

Simi, a former airline pilot and now an executive with JetBlue, says she was "young and stupid" when at age 17 she bought a plane ticket to Germany and begged to learn the sport. The amused Germans took her in, she speculates, "because I wasn't a threat to them."

From 1981 to 1984, the team, which included a preteen Myler, trained in Lake Placid, "all self-funded, living on the floors of people's houses. We certainly didn't have money to compete in Europe," Simi recalls.

Myler was promoted to the national team in 1985, "when there was still an East and West Germany, the East Germans dominated, and as a 15-year-old, you think anything is possible."

Most importantly, 1985 was when the communications giant now known as Verizon became a sponsor, allowing the team to hire a full-time coach, upgrade equipment and begin a national talent search.

Myler, winner of 11 World Cup medals including a gold, says German dominance was driven home at each medals ceremony.

"It's nice to hear another anthem and see another flag," says the New York-based lawyer. "We got the American flag in there every so often. You want to see the U.S. flag up there, especially if it's tied to your performance."

Wilczak-Brand, who retired after the 2002 Winter Games and is a high school biology and algebra teacher in the Chicago suburbs, says she never let the Germans mess with her head.

"Why would you compete if you didn't think you could win?" she asks. "Someone has to win. Why not me?"

At the same time, she adds, it's hard to mount a challenge against a country with four of the world's 14 refrigerated luge tracks, where children begin sliding at an early age and where the program is subsidized by the government so athletes don't have to find their own funding or off-season jobs.

"That's a cultural hurdle that's hard to overcome," she says.

But Hamlin is on the cusp.

"Right now, the German team is pretty young, younger than it's been for quite a while," she says. "They have such a deep program that when one athlete retires, there's another one to take her spot."

But the U.S. team is getting deeper too.

"We're leaving one or two girls home every year, so it's not like we're taking people just because we have to. We're all fighting tooth-and-nail to make the team," Hamlin says.

And there's a new generation on the horizon, one that includes Simi's 11-year-old daughter, Katy.

"It's a very methodical pathway now, so it's no surprise that the U.S. team is coming of age. We moved to Salt Lake City so Katy could be in the luge program at Park City," says Simi. "She's won her first gold and silver medals. She's on her way."

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

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