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Sled Alert!

Want to be an Olympian but don't have a sport? Luge wants you.

Nancy Canning and her two daughters, Mallory and Erin, who have driven nine hours to Denver from Kansas City just for this event, wait in the vast expanse of parking lots that surround Invesco Field at Mile High. It's early Sunday morning, and the highlight of the Canning family vacation is about to happen.

Could this be the start of an Olympic moment?

Erin, who is sixteen, is so excited she can't stand still. She's an Olympic Games fanatic, an NBC broadcaster's dream. She has taped all the Games since 1996, hours and hours of running and jumping, swimming, diving, throwing, skating, skiing and leaping.

"Erin calls our upstairs den, where we keep the TV and VCR, 'Olympic Stadium,'" says Nancy, sighing. "She's kind of...quirky."

"I just watched the '96 Games again last week!" Erin confirms. "They're seven years old, but I didn't care! I've always wanted to be in the Olympics! Any sport!"

But time was running out! So when Erin logged onto an Olympic Web site and noticed that a skeleton rider, a sledder who rides down the hill headfirst, had started the sport only two years ago -- and then she spotted the newspaper ad for tryouts in the sister sport of luging -- she had to act.

"I thought: Luge! That's close!"

You know kids. So Erin and Mallory, thirteen, convinced their parents to drive half a day across the sweltering plains to Denver to stand in a frying-pan-hot parking lot to see if they have what it takes to become future Olympians in luge, a winter sport neither has ever seen live, much less participated in.

Imagine never having strapped on skis in your life, but driving up to Vail to show off your skiing ability in front of an Olympic coach on the prowl for talent. It definitely would be humiliating, and there's an excellent chance it would be bloody. But this is luge, the most democratic of sports, where Olympic dreams can turn into world-class reality with head-snapping speed.

It happened to Fred Zimny. The stocky New Jersey native saw the luge hurtling down an icy course for the very first time on television during the 1976 Games. It looked kind of interesting. So the following winter, on the way to Montreal for a family trip, Zimny, then thirteen years old, and his father decided to stop by Lake Placid, at the time home to the only luge track in the U.S. Fred took his inaugural run on top of the slippery sled at a beginner's training camp.

At the end of the camp, a competition was held among the kids; Fred came in second. Three weeks later, he was invited to attend the World Championships in Europe as a member of the U.S. Junior Development team.

Insta-lympian!

Luge might be the only sport in which you truly can become an overnight success story. Blame it on the sport's obscurity in this country -- it's the rare child who refuses to come in for dinner because he's out back honing his sledding techniques on the family Flexible Flyer.

"Luge is very facility-driven," explains Zimny. Think how popular Little League baseball would be if there were only a couple of baseball fields in the entire nation. That's luge. Today, the U.S. has exactly two full-sized runs: the aforementioned facility in Lake Placid and a newer one constructed for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

"Waiting for athletes to come to luge wasn't working," says Zimny. "So we decided to take it on the road and introduce the sport to a lot more kids." For the past eighteen summers, USA Luge has crisscrossed the country holding weekend-long tryouts as part of its "Slider Search" campaign, hoping to identify the next generation of Olympic sledding champions.

It's about as close as you can get to an Arthurian legend these days. Anyone between the ages of ten and fourteen is invited to be king. Instead of stepping up to the stone to pull out the sword, though, any kid who shows up is asked to lie flat on his back on a sled and roll down a hill.

If he goes fast enough, and looks as though he might someday be able to handle a sled moving ninety miles per hour on ice, he could find himself at an Olympic training camp. About seventy out of the 700 or so kids at this summer's seven Slider Search tryouts will get the opportunity to show their style on Lake Placid's ice track. Twenty of them will then be selected as members of the U.S. Junior Development Team.

Try making strides like that with the pole vault.

USA Luge, the sport's governing body, isn't just being dramatic by promising such astonishing advancement, either. In the past few years, 90 percent of the U.S.'s elite lugers have been discovered at one of the organization's on-the-road recruitment drives. Six out of ten members of the medal-winning 2002 Olympic men's and women's luge teams began their top-level sledding careers by showing up on a whim at a USA Luge traveling tryout.

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