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Monday, February 11, 2002
Zoeggeler wins gold; American Heidt fourth

Associated Press

PARK CITY, Utah -- Georg Hackl knew he was a beaten man.

Armin Zoeggeler
Armin Zoeggeler won the silver four years back in Nagano, but plays second fiddle no more in Salt Lake City.

With a smile and clap of his hands, he applauded the Italian who ended his attempt to make history by winning four straight gold medals at the Winter Olympics. Later, he helped hoist the victor on his shoulders.

"I'm getting a silver, and that's great," the German luger said after Armin Zoeggeler's win Monday. "Now, two silver medals will frame three gold medals. The second place is where I belong."

He tearfully dedicated the silver, itself a record-setter, to his father, who died this winter after one of Hackl's World Cup wins.

Hackl finished nearly a third of a second behind Zoeggeler and barely beat longtime rival Markus Prock of Austria.

"He has been the best luger in the last four years and he deserved it," Hackl said, referring to Zoeggeler. "It would have been a shame if he'd not won. For me the silver has the same value as the gold."

Almost lost among the emotion of the moment was the performance of Adam Heidt of Northport, N.Y. He finished fourth -- the best singles showing by the U.S. team since luge became an Olympic sport in 1964 -- and was far ahead of Albert Demtschenko of Russia.

"I'm very happy. Fourth in the world is not too bad," said Heidt, who accidentally spiked a finger and drew blood as he started his final run. "I knew what I had to do. The crowd was chanting 'U-S-A.' I had chills down my spine on the handles. That was a pretty intense race."

Teammate Tony Benshoof of White Bear Lake, Minn., was 17th and Nick Sullivan of Oakdale, Minn., was 26th.

Even though this Olympic moment wasn't golden for Hackl, they'll be raising a few beers when he returns to his Bavarian home. With his second silver, Hackl became the first athlete to medal in five consecutive Winter Olympics.

"You need good luck to win medals in very important competitions," Hackl said. "I continue to be lucky today. I don't know that much about Olympic history. If I'm really the first one, then later on when I have the time, I might sit back and contemplate what I've accomplished."

The result of the race seemed to be a natural progression for the 35-year-old Hackl. When he won gold at Lillehammer in 1994, Zoeggeler took bronze. When Hackl made it three in a row at Nagano four years ago, Zoeggeler won silver.

The top three sliders made it a memorable two days, combining to break the track record five times. But after the first day, the race for gold had become a two-man affair between Hackl and Zoeggeler.

The 28-year-old Italian star from the Dolomite region of the Alps, a three-time World Cup champion, led by only .041 seconds after Sunday's two runs. And Hackl had sent a message by setting a track record of 44.494 seconds on his second run.

But when Hackl faltered in the first heat Monday, with the slowest time among the top five, he fell nearly a quarter of a second behind. That was too much to make up.

After an agonizing four-hour wait, Zoeggeler finished the stunning victory with a flawless ride of 44.578 seconds on his final run, the fastest of the 48 competitors. His overall time of the four runs was 2:57.941.

"After the third run, I felt fairly confident and at peace," said Zoeggeler, who spent the time between the final two runs at the ski-jumping complex next door, chatting with Olympic teammates. "I really tried to concentrate, do my best, and attack."

The top three were the last to slide. Prock, who won his 10th World Cup title this year, won bronze in 2:58.283. And he went out in style in his fifth and final games, setting a track record of 44.271 seconds on his third run.

Hackl, in jeopardy of falling to third, had a final heat time only a thousandth of a second slower than Prock's and finished with a total of 2:58.270.

After he glided to a halt, Hackl turned his purple sled around, pumped his fists in the air, and slid one final time back to the finish line. As he watched Zoeggeler cross the finish line and realized he would not win gold, Hackl smiled and clapped.

Moments later at the awards ceremony, he nodded to Prock, and together they hoisted Zoeggeler on their shoulders.

Hackl, who said he would race at least one more year, had much to overcome this time, even while winning four of the seven World Cup races this season. His father died of a heart attack in December in Koenigssee, Germany, only moments after Hackl had won again.

When asked if he had dedicated this Olympic race to somebody who had helped him along the way -- as he had all the others -- Hackl broke down and cried, burying his head in his coat.

"I want to dedicate it to my father," he said.