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Wednesday, February 13, 2002
U.S. doesn't medal, but has record showing

Associated Press

PARK CITY, Utah -- The long road back was golden for Sylke Otto.

Otto won the gold medal in women's luge Wednesday, pulling away from teammates Barbara Niedernhuber and Silke Kraushaar in the final two heats as Germany swept all three medals in the event for the fifth time.

Otto's victory marked the 100th gold medal for Germany at all Winter games, and it was especially sweet. Because of the depth on the German team, she had failed to qualify for the previous two Winter Olympics after finishing 13th at Albertville.

"Those were very tough years, but there is nothing missing in my career now," said Otto, who also has won the last two World Championships. "I failed twice, but in 1998 I vowed to make the team."

With hoards of fans waving German flags and a sign that said "Sweep," Otto, Barbara Niedernhuber and defending Olympic champion Silke Kraushaar obliged.

The German women have won 26 of the 33 medals awarded since the sport was introduced to the Olympics in 1964, and Otto sent a disheartening warning to the other countries.

"We cannot intentionally slow down," she said.

She certainly didn't here. Otto had a four-run aggregate time of 2 minutes, 52.464 seconds and broke the track record twice in winning her first Olympic medal.

Niedernhuber, whose Bavarian neighbor Georg Hackl helped with her sled, won her second straight silver with a time of 2:52.785. That earned her a measure of revenge against Kraushaar, who edged Niedernhuber for the gold in Nagano four years ago by .002 -- the closest finish in Olympic history. Kraushaar won bronze this time in 2:52.865.

The United States had a strong showing. Despite faltering on her final run, Becky Wilczak of River Forest, Ill. finished fifth in 2:54.254. That equaled the highest singles finish for a U.S. woman, set by Cammy Myler in 1992 at Albertville.

"It's a great feeling. We've progressed, we've improved," Wilczak said. "It's my first Olympics, so you learn."

Just finishing the race was a triumph for Wilczak because she knew her ailing father was at the track watching. They embraced at the finish line in an emotional moment.

Tom Wilczak is fighting for his life. The 55-year-old former information technology manager is awaiting a call for a liver transplant, and a private jet was waiting just in case. In keeping with a family tradition, they did not speak until the racing was over.

"It was a great surprise to have him there and be able to give him a hug," she said.

Ashley Hayden of Westborough, Mass. finished eighth in 2:54.658. Courtney Zablocki of Highlands Ranch, Colo. finished 13th with an aggregate of 2:55.154.

"If you told me last year that I was going to be on the Olympic team and finish in eighth place, I would have said, 'No way.' We've done well this year. It is our first Olympics, and mistakes happen. We'll get them one day, and that will be our day. We'll be having the press conference first."

Despite much slower starts than Kraushaar, Otto blazed down the 12-curve course at Utah Olympic Park. If she was ailing from the stiff neck she had received injections for prior to the competition, it was not evident.

On her third run, Otto was clocked in 42.940 seconds, breaking the track record of 43.076 seconds she had set Tuesday night in the second heat. That gave her an insurmountable lead of nearly a third of a second with one run left.

"I can't believe it," she said. "I don't know what to say."