Monday, February 11, 2002
Updated: February 12, 3:20 PM ET
Father and son slide down hill together
By Jim Caple
PARK CITY, Utah -- Obviously, it would have been easier had Werner Hoeger simply asked his son, Chris, if he wanted to play catch in the back yard like most fathers do. Clearly it would have been safer. Undoubtedly, it would have been far cheaper.
But it could not possibly have been even a fraction as rewarding.
While the world -- or at least that small part of the world that cares at all about the luge -- watched to see whether Georg Hackl could win his fourth consecutive gold medal or whether an American could actually step onto the medal stand Monday, 48-year-old Werner and 17-year-old Chris enjoyed the ultimate father-son project. The two slid down a mountainside at 80 miles an hour within minutes of each other as father and son Olympians.
Werner finished his fourth run with a combined time of 3:08.075, good enough for 40th in the field of 48. Minutes later, Chris slid down with a combined time of 3:04.313, finishing 31st overall.
As his son crossed the finish line, so many tears flowed down Hoeger's cheeks you would have thought he was watching "Brian's Song" on the monitor instead of Chris's race. Crying, he greeted Chris with a hug and a kiss on the cheek. Werner speaks three languages -- English, Spanish and German -- but he could not find adequate words in any of them to describe his feelings.
"This is a dream I've worked for for 34 years, and to bring my son along for the dream, I am just so proud," he said. "He is better than me and I have no problem about that because you always want your children to be better."
Now, you're probably thinking right now, Great. Another 48-year-old father and teenage son Olympic luge story. But this one comes with a twist -- the Hoegers live in Boise, Idaho, and compete for Venezuela.
In other words, the Hoegers aren't the stereotypical Idaho family.
Werner was born in Venezuela to an Austrian mother and a German father (which explains the name). He grew up in Venezuela, accepted a scholarship to Brigham Young despite not knowing English and eventually earned a doctorate in kinesiology. He also met and married his wife, Sharon. Werner is a professor at Boise State and the two have five children -- Chris is the middle child, a junior at Centennial High School.
Chris has only been to Venezuela once, when he was 5 years old, but Olympic rules extend eligibility to the children and grandchildren of a citizen's country. And while Werner hasn't lived in Venezuela for 20 years, he first dreamed about competing for his native country decades ago.
When Werner was a young man, he was part of the Venezuela national gymnastics team and wanted to compete in the 1972 and 1976 Olympics, but he couldn't because his country didn't qualify as a team.
"It was a huge disappointment," he said. "You start thinking about the Olympics as a youngster and every time the Olympics came around there was a real empty feeling because I wanted to be there. I just looked at the TV and wondered, What if? What could have been?"
Four years ago, What if became why not? While watching the Olympics closing ceremonies from Boise, Werner spotted a woman marching in with the Venezuelan flag.
A Venezuelan flag at the Winter Olympics? That couldn't be right. Venezuela doesn't do winter sports. Apart from shortstops, it barely does summer sports.
Nonetheless, someone was carrying the Venezuelan flag. And pretty soon Werner was searching the Internet for information, learning that the woman was luger Iginia Boccalandro, the first Venezuelan to compete for the country in the winter Olympics. E-mails were exchanged and pretty soon the old hunger was burning in Werner's stomach again.
Boccalandro encouraged him to give the luge a try. Werner pointed out the obvious, that he was almost 45, but she said not to worry that gymnasts have a good balance for the luge and that the sport might be his ticket to the Olympics with the Venezuelan team.
That was all he needed. As Sharon describes it, Werner is a driven man and he keeps himself in excellent shape. So he not only showed up for a street luge clinic with luge coach Jon Owen later that summer, he brought his family: Chris, plus another son, Jonathon, and a daughter, Julianne.
They finished one through four in a race and were on their way. Not that they really knew the route to Salt Lake would be every bit as fast, demanding and unnerving as a luge run.
"I think we were all crazy at first," Chris said.
In addition to being a sport even Chris says he thought was for "psychos," luge is an expensive sport because of the very limited tracks available. Werner estimates the family spent $17,000 last year when they competed in the world cup season and Chris spent a lot of nights e-mailing his homework from Europe. Werner says he and Chris were away from home 68 nights in a 79-day stretch.
"Partway through, I have to admit I wondered, Do we really want to get into this?" Sharon said. "And to be honest, we had no clue at all everything that was involved. You begin to wonder, is this really worth it? Especially when Werner struggled, it was really emotional."
"About three years ago, I wanted to quit because I didn't want to miss so much school," Chris said. "He and my mom made me keep going, and I'm glad they did."
By last year, they were competing in the world cup season, traveling through Europe together -- father, son and sleds.
A teenager and his father traveling through Europe and sharing the same hotel room is the perfect recipe for either domestic gunfire or a bad John Hughes movie, but the two emerged closer than ever (that both are Mormon helps).
"We got to know a lot about each other," Werner said.
"Way too much," Chris joked.
"I could not have done this without him," Werner said. "Being on the world cup circuit by myself, away from home for so long, it would have been very difficult."
And so just four years after the crazy idea took root in Werner's head and stomach, the two completed their Olympic journey together Monday, ending their runs four seconds apart in the standings and infinitely closer in their relationship.
While many fathers and sons struggle to communicate, the Hoegers hugged repeatedly, answering questions over and over in the interview zone, repeatedly describing their story to reporters as Sharon and the rest of the family watched on from the stands. "I don't think Chris even realizes what a great experience this is yet," she said. "I think it will take a couple years."
Chris will go on a mission in a couple years, so the 2006 Games are out for him. He says he doesn't know what he'll do after that. "As awesome as this is -- and it is so great -- serving the Lord is more important," he said. "I've got my whole life ahead of me, so we'll see where it takes me."
As for Werner?
"I want to keep going until I'm age 50 and then take it one year at a time."
Who knows. Remember, he has a 5-year-old daughter.
Jim Caple is a senior writer at ESPN.com.