PARK CITY, Utah -- I informed USA Luge of my blood type.
Jim Caple at Luge Fantasy Camp
I submitted a form detailing my physical condition, including my blood pressure and the history of heart disease in my family. I gave the names of my next of kin and an emergency contact number. I relinquished USA Luge of any liability and accepted all risk of injury, including "permanent disability, paralysis and death." I acknowledged that "severe social and economic losses might result" from my actions.
And now, as I scroll through the paperwork, I see a clause barring my heirs from suing over accidental death.
Good Lord. What did I get myself into when I agreed to attend Luge Fantasy Camp?
I mst hve bene crszzyti agggr ...
Whoops. Pardon those misspellings. You see, I started typing this with one hand because ... well, wait. I'm getting ahead of the story.
Luge is touted as the fastest sport on ice, but to say Olympians crack 90 miles per hour doesn't do it justice. Most people have driven a car at 90 miles per hour, or close to it, and it doesn't seem like that big a deal. (Or at least, that's what we tell the state troopers when they pull us over.
"I was doing 84? Really? It didn't seem nearly that fast. Maybe your radar gun is broken. Here, why don't you take this $50 bill and get a new one?"). You simply lose the sense of speed when you're sitting high off the road in a comfortable black leather seat, with five feet of hood space ahead of you, several tons of protective metal surrounding you, a 44-ounce Super Big Gulp in one hand, a cell phone in the other and your knee safely on the steering wheel.
The luge, meanwhile, is more like riding Indiana Jones-style under the chassis of a truck.
True, there aren't any Nazis trying to shoot you in luge, but that's a small solace when you're whipping through curve 13 at 80 miles per hour, and you can't see the track ahead of you, and the sled is riding dangerously up the ice wall. The point is, with so little space separating you from the ground, you feel every single mile on the speedometer. If luge sleds had speedometers, that is. But they don't. They don't have steering wheels, either. Or brakes, for that matter.
By all rights, a sport offering this level of speed and risk should be hugely popular, but luge has a slight image problem in this country. Americans pay attention to luge only during the Olympics, and not many do even then. Jerry Seinfeld famously put down luge by saying it's the only Olympic sport in which we can't know whether participation is voluntary. It's possible, he suggested, that a spectator slipped onto the track and is holding onto the sled for dear life. In one "Seinfeld" episode, George described the only luge strategy as "lie flat and try not to die." That's funny, but it's also about as wrong as saying the only strategy in NASCAR is to "sit on your ass and try not to crash."
Luge would get more respect if people could try it for themselves, but that's the problem. There just aren't tracks available in most of the country. Want to be a basketball player? Go out to the driveway and shoot some hoops. If you want to luge, however, there are only three tracks in all of North America that you can race on (Park City, Lake Placid and Calgary, with a fourth being built outside Vancouver for the 2010 Olympics). This pretty much limits potential luge athletes to those who live in the immediate area and those who are willing to make considerable sacrifices to move there.
So when the folks at USA Luge asked whether I wanted to attend their fantasy camp, I leapt at the offer. It was only later, when I got ready to leave and everyone kept asking whether ESPN would cover my medical costs, that I began to think it might not be such a good idea.
Silver medalist Gordy Sheer begins luge camp by explaining the basics. A racing sled weighs about 50 pounds and is about the size of a couple pizza delivery boxes. You lie on it with your head resting behind the sled and your feet stretching in front of it. The only way to steer is by leaning down with your shoulders or applying pressure with your legs. Because there are no brakes, sleds stop only when they enter the final uphill stretch of the course and gravity eventually brings them to a halt.
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Once we get these fundamentals down, we move up to the track at Utah Olympic Park, where the luge, bobsled and skeleton were held at the 2002 Olympics. Intense G-forces on some courses prevent you from even raising your head on certain portions, and this track is one of the fastest in the world. We're told someone recently broke both feet in a crash here. This, then, is when we encounter,without question, the most intimidating portion of our weekend.
Donning our speedsuits.
Attend a baseball fantasy camp and you'll get to wear a flattering pinstriped uniform that covers up any unsightly bulges gained from years of sitting at a desk, eating donuts. At luge camp, however, you receive Lycra speedsuits that accentuate every pound, bulge and roll. If my speedsuit had been white instead of blue, I would have been a dead ringer for the Michelin Man.
Luge fantasy camp coincided with the opening weekend of the Sundance Film Festival, and we spent Saturday night fighting through crowds as we prowled around Park City. Sundance is like the Super Bowl, only with more publicists and better clothes. Fighting our way through the throngs -- "There's Sting! There's Owen Wilson!" -- I had the overwhelming feeling that I was way, way out of my league.
Nonetheless, we somehow found ourselves in this exclusive party room where Paris Hilton was supposedly holding her birthday bash that night. So many people were crowded outside the bar trying to get in, you'd have thought they were showing her infamous video at the Film Fest.
And yet, we got in.
Let me stress here that I think the entire Paris Hilton phenomenon symbolizes pretty much everything that is wrong in this country. A rich, spoiled, vain, shallow woman becomes a celebrity by virtue of nothing more than having rich parents, drinking in public and appearing in a pornographic video. Call me old school, but I preferred the days when a sex tape was a source of scandal, not a reason to raise your nightclub appearance fee to $300,000. It's not like Hilton is even that good looking (she has kind of a long, pointy nose). And yet some people want the estate tax permanently changed so that she can get a bigger inheritance. Isn't America great?
But you want to know the really sad, pathetic part? Despite feeling that way, I really, really wanted to see her.
Unfortunately, we left before she arrived (if she ever did), but took solace when we walked out of the room and overheard a bouncer telling someone, "You can't go in there -- VIPs only."
And we got this treatment, mind you, without wearing our speedsuits.
Wearing this in public must be what the release form meant by suffering "severe social losses."
The beauty of luge, though, is that it's a sport that rewards fat. Well, not fat exactly, but certainly weight. The more mass you have, the faster you go. It's probably no coincidence that the greatest luger in history, Germany's Georg Hackl, is built a little like Barney Rubble. Weight is one of the reasons Sheer switched to two-man luge. At around 155 pounds, he simply was too light for singles, where most sliders weigh 190.
In other words, there is hope for me.
Which is not to say I can pick up luge in middle age with any hope whatsoever of reaching the Olympics (unless, of course, I could claim citizenship of another country -- but that's a whole other story). Because so much depends on constant, subtle adjustments throughout the course, years and years of experience are absolutely essential in a sport that often comes down to thousandths of a second. To improve their aerodynamics lugers occasionally lay their heads back so that they don't even look at the track, choosing to drive blind at 80 miles an hour instead.
It would be like driving home late one night, putting the pedal to the metal and then turning off the headlights. Seinfeld is wrong. This is not the sport for accidental Olympians.
"A lot of great natural athletes have trouble," Sheer says, adding that if I trained for an entire winter, I might be able to begin a run from the women's start. It can take five years to be competitive from the actual top of the course, and a decade to become a medal contender.
At that rate and considering my age, I could be a literal skeleton before qualifying for the Olympics.
(What's the difference between skeleton and luge? Skeleton racers lie on their stomachs and go headfirst, while lugers lie on their backs and go feetfirst. Also, luge coaches do not use this pickup line: "If I said you have a nice skeleton, would you hold it against me?")
Sheer starts us out low, just before curve 12 on the 15 curve course. I feel this is a tad unmanly until I lie back on the sled and he gives me a shove down the track. I quickly gain speed until I'm flying at nearly 40 mph. Although that isn't much compared to an Olympian, I feel as if I've been strapped to the hood of a car driven by a teenager who just got his license and is speeding down a mountain pass in a whiteout. And he's just had a six-pack of Bud. And the brakes have been cut.
It's a freakin' blast.
Luge is like the best, fastest roller-coaster you've ever ridden, with the added thrill that you might suddenly go flying into space and shatter your spine against a wall of ice. If the Matterhorn ride at Disneyland was like this, you wouldn't mind standing in line for an hour behind a bunch of crying children.
I don't know whether to scream with delight or soil my speedsuit.
And then I lose control in curve 14 and start ping-ponging against the walls. As I enter the uphill portion to the finish, I foolishly take my left hand off the sled and it smashes against the wall, my wedding ring slicing open my pinkie finger. Great. One run from the lowest part of the course and I'm already hemorrhaging as though I'm in a Quentin Tarantino movie.
After I come to a halt and get off the track, Sheer takes a look at my finger. He wipes the blood off with snow, bandages the cut and sends me down the track on my next run. This one goes better, in that I have no fresh wounds when I finish. By the fifth run, I've picked up enough feel for the sled that I don't hit the wall once and finish with the second-fastest time of the day.
I'm getting the hang of things. Vancouver 2010 doesn't seem that far away.
The next day, we move higher up the track, to the tourist start, and then higher still to the junior start at curve 6. Each move up adds speed. I hit 45 miles per hour. Then I crack 50. Looking to reach 60, I get cocky. I start my final run way too fast and immediately start slamming against the walls. I'm not going that much faster, but I can't handle the speed. I'm too high in curve 12 and way too high in curve 13. I feel like I'm going to lose control any second and flip. I recover briefly in curve 14, but wind up smashing into the wall again.
As I walk away from my final run, my left hand hurts like hell from slamming into the wall. In two days, it will swell and discolor so much that a nurse will ask me if I burned it. I'll have to type one-handed for a day.
But I'm not thinking about my hand when I walk off the course. All I'm thinking about is how I want to get back on the sled as soon as possible. How I desperately want to feel the thrill of going all the way from the top of the course and experience 80 miles per hour in my face. I feel almost Olympian.
Oh, I know what I wrote earlier about not having any hope of becoming competitive in luge at my age. But maybe I was too hasty. I'll be 48 for the 2010 Games in Vancouver. Julio Franco is nearly that old. Maybe it isn't so crazy to dream the Olympic dream.
And then I walk into the finish house, where a handful of 12- and 13-year-olds are getting dressed after their training slides. And I remember the 13-year-old girl who was in here earlier with a cracked heel and torn ligaments she incurred in a crash. And how she secured her foot brace with duct tape. And how she still went so much faster than me, I might as well have been filled with helium and trailing an anchor.
Oh, well. There's always curling.
Jim Caple is a senior writer at ESPN.com. His first book, "The Devil Wears Pinstripes," is on sale at bookstores nationwide. It also can be ordered through his Web site, Jimcaple.com. Sound off to Page 2 here.