Roller-coaster of emotions at luge track
WHISTLER, British Columbia -- The men's individual luge competition ended Sunday, ending a three-day ride of emotions that whip-sawed the athletes around more corners and at higher speeds than the now notorious track here. In one weekend, they went from the joyous anticipation of the Olympics, to the horrifying death of a competitor, to the first races the very next afternoon, to the final, victorious run of German gold medalist Felix Loch, to ... well, to Lord knows exactly what now.
"The energy that's been in this place has really helped put a hold on what everyone was feeling in the luge community," Canada's Samuel Edney said. "The next couple days, it will really set in. It's hard to think something like that happened just two days ago."
"It's always there," German silver medalist David Moeller said of the accident that killed Georgia's Nodar Kumaritashvili. "My teammates at the camp looked at the pictures from the accident. In some quiet minutes, I tried to think about it. It was a dark day for luge sport, and a dark day for all of us. We were sitting in the dining hall, all the athletes, and we were just saying nothing "
This event will forever be remembered for Kumaritashvili's death, as well as the decision to go on with the competition from a lower start. In the wake of a death, it seems trivial, almost offensive, to ponder how the course shortening affected the completion (beyond making it safer), but then, these are athletes who, like Kumaritashvili, trained for years to compete here.
"The shortening of the track -- and I want to say this very clear -- was the right decision. There is no discussion about that," said Italy's Armin Zoeggeler, who finished third after winning the gold medal in 2002 and 2006. "But starting lower was a disadvantage for me. I'm not good at starting from there, and all the different temperatures here at Whistler and the rain had an effect. I'm not a guy who likes it warm; I need it cold and icy, so that wasn't good for me. But I tried to make the best of it and I did by making the podium and I'm happy I won the bronze medal."
The shortening of the track hurt the Canadians the most because they had the most training runs here and were more experienced at handling the track's high speed. They had realistic medal hopes, but Edney was their top finisher at seventh. "When you think of going from the top, it evens it out a lot more," Edney said. "We all felt super solid from the top, but you can't really think about it because it didn't happen."
The biggest beneficiaries were the Germans, because a start from a lesser slope placed more importance on starting power, which the Germans excel at. As Argentina's Ruben Gonzalez said, "All that time in the gym paid off." Then again, the Germans have dominated the sport for years, so perhaps they would have won anyway.
Shortening the wall definitely made the track safer, which was the absolute priority given the accident and the controversy over the track speed even before Kumaritashvili's death. The athletes were divided over the shortening of the track. Some, like Zoeggeler, said it was the right call. Others said the track was fine, especially after a wall was heightened at Turn 16, where the accident occurred.
"The wall was enough, absolutely," Gonzalez said. "If the wall hadn't gone up, I wouldn't have raced. In 25 years, I've never seen anyone fly out of the track. I didn't think it was possible. When I saw it, I thought, 'That could be me, that could be anybody.' But as soon as the wall went up, it was safe. It's safe now. But they changed it to the women's start because it was a reaction. Whenever something bad happens, people react. It's normal.
"But the next time they have a World Cup, I bet they start form the top."
U.S. veteran Tony Benshoof likewise said he would have preferred to have started at the top of the hill. The Minnesota native is no stranger to high speed -- he made the Guinness Book of World Records for the fastest time in the luge (a record since passed). Benshoof finished eighth and is retiring after three Olympics.
"It's my life. It changed my life," he said of his sport. "It's tough. I've been doing this for half my life. And to give it up? I hope I don't wind up doing something mundane or I'll go crazy.">
The women's luge and the doubles luge competitions -- and then bobsled and skeleton -- are still to come, but Benshoof is done competing here. He said he did not take part in the opening ceremonies Friday because of the accident and the uncertainty over how it would affect the schedule, but will most definitely stay for the closing ceremonies.
Asked what he will do in the two weeks between now and then, Benshoof gave the reply that should apply to everyone after this weekend: "Enjoy life."
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached here. His Web site is at jimcaple.net.
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