Sled Alert!
Mark Poutenis

Sled Alert!

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.


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.

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.

"Okay, good," Zimny says, happy for any toehold.

Next, Zablocki, the hometown hero, is introduced. She gives a short introduction of the luging uniform and an extremely brief explanation of aerodynamics. After that, it's down to the road to sit on one of the actual luge sleds, which, it being summer, are fitted with roller-blade wheels in place of runners.

Zimny, Zablocki and Logan Gastio, a nineteen-year-old junior national team member who was discovered six years ago at a Slider Search in upstate New York, help the kids get onto the sleds in the proper position: flat on the back, toes pointed straight out, head back with the chin tucked into the chest. "What we don't want to see is a big bowling-ball head," Zimny instructs. "Think about flat and long." This is followed by a short seminar in steering: Push gently with the leg on the opposite side you want to turn, while turning your shoulder slightly into the turn.

The formalities taken care of, Zimny proclaims the kids ready to ride. Cullen, a thirteen-year-old from Golden, seems uncertain that a ten-minute introduction to the sport could actually cover sufficient ground. "I'm kind of scared," he says, scoping out the 200-yard asphalt run.

Still, after the first run down the course, most everyone is pumped. "It's awesome!" says Erin. "It's smooth! Kind of like flying!"

Erin whips down the hill in a ruler-straight line. "It just gets better and better!" she says on the way back up the hill. "It's awesome! You have to get a [Rocky Mountain Luge Club] flier!" she instructs her mother. "They go to Utah for a week every year! To luge!"

Not everyone is having it so easy. A couple of boys veer suddenly off the course, blast over a cone or two and slam into the curb. But after three runs each, everyone graduates up the hill to the USA Luge team trailer, which is emblazoned with orange flames and the words "The Ultimate Slide." The top of the trailer folds out to make a starting ramp.

After a physical-ability exam (pull-ups, stationary jump, medicine ball throw and flexibility test), the kids are released back into the real, non-Olympic world. "Thanks guys," Zimny tells them. "You guys did a good job today."

Privately, Zimny is more ambivalent about the morning's recruiting session. "A lot of the kids just aren't getting the hang of it," he complains. "I'm kind of discouraged." Erin is good, but she's a bit old for the Slider Search; Zimny says that thirteen-year-old Mallory, who has been quietly mastering her sled, might have a better chance of making the cut.

Still, he promises to send everyone a letter, even those who don't get invited to Lake Placid this winter. Finally, he calls out each kid's name, and they all walk up to receive a T-shirt.

Everyone claps. The kids, flush with the excitement of flying down the road on a real luge sled, beam. It's an Olympic moment.


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