By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
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By Patricia Calhoun
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The method yields results. In 1993, the caravan stopped by Highlands Ranch and set up some cones on Plaza Drive. Courtney Zablocki's parents saw an ad in the newspaper for the tryout being held just up the road and dragged along their then eleven-year-old daughter, who'd never heard of the luge. "My parents wanted to get me involved in any sport -- gymnastics, dance, soccer," Zablocki, now 22, recalls. "I didn't have a swimming meet that weekend. So they said, 'You have a good toe-point. Let's go.'
"Truthfully?" she says. "I never really watched the Winter Olympics."
Didn't matter. She went to the tryout. She had a blast. "I loved the speed," she remembers. "Cruising down the hill, but still being in control -- I loved it." She had so much fun that she returned for the second day of the session. Still, when it was over, she promptly forgot about luging.
Until three months later, that is, when Zablocki got a letter inviting her to Lake Placid to try out for the next level of luge. She begged her parents to let her go, and they finally relented. After the first run on ice, Zablocki was regretting her persistence.
"It was crazy," she says. "I had no idea what to expect. I was so out of control. I never wanted to get back on the sled."
But she managed to climb back on. "The second run was ten times better," she says. She ended up taking eleven runs that first day. Now: "Going down the track is fun every time," she says. "It's the same feeling; you get that itch -- you want to get back on the sled. It's the speed and being in control of it." Last year Zablocki traveled to Salt Lake City as a member of the United States women's luge team and finished thirteenth in her event.
These days Fred Zimny doubles as USA Luge's national team manager and as head of recruiting. The Denver tryouts represent the last of seven Slider Search stops that kicked off on May 31 in Long Island and took Zimny and his luge road show to Rhode Island, New Jersey, California, Pennsylvania and Minnesota.
After two months, Zimny is ready to pack it up. "It's been a weird summer," he sighs. A few of the tryouts were rained out. Last night, someone broke into the USA Luge trailer and stole a bunch of T-shirts and some walkie-talkies. And talk about a sport that gets no respect: The burglars didn't think to take any of the two dozen sleds, which cost $500 each.
About thirty-five kids show up at Invesco. A couple make an impression: "There was this kid, probably twelve years old, who after watching him I could've sworn he had slid before," Zimny says. "He could do well; he's got some natural talent. But how far he goes -- it's hard to say."
Of course, that's the problem with trying kids out for a sport none of them has ever attempted: You can look for signs, but it's not like stumbling across LeBron James shooting hoops on some playground basketball court. The process is more like dragging a kid out of a swimming pool, handing him a basketball and then trying to gauge if he might someday be good enough to play in the NBA.
"We look to see if the kid has a good, flat aerodynamic position on the sled that comes naturally," Zimny explains. "And we want to see how quickly they pick up the steering. You can see kids who understand how the sled steers, because you don't see them do anything. Kids who don't get it, their arms are flailing and they're going all over the place."
Great lugers win consistently, yet success in the sport remains mystifying. It's an activity that requires tremendous physical control and counts rousing successes in increments many times shorter than an eye blink. Last year's entire two-man World Cup season came down to the last run of the last race. With their times being measured in thousandths of a second, the last two sleds tied. (The Americans ended up winning because of team points.)
In other words, it's hard to look at an eleven-year-old boy and predict that he's going to be the one who can shave two-thousandths of a second off a 1,300-meter run eight years from now. "It's the innate skill you can't put your finger on," Zimny says. "You can't coach it or teach it. But they gotta have it."
And if you're the head of recruiting for the sport, you gotta try to find it. So here is Zimny addressing seven future lugers sitting on a grassy strip in the shadow of Invesco Field.
"Not many people here," he observes. "That's good for you, because you get to take a few extra runs. It's not so good for us, since we want to recruit a lot of athletes."
"Have any of you been on a sled before?" he continues hopefully. No one raises a hand.
"Hmmm," Zimny says gamely. "Some real novices. Any of you seen it on TV?" All but two of the kids raise their hands.