Lugers slide with heavy hearts

Everyone made it down safely.

For luge, that meant progress, healing and normalcy.

Cowbells clanged, fans with painted faces waved flags, and even IOC president Jacques Rogge looked on as the celebration of this hyper-speedy sport resumed one day after tragedy rocked the sliding community and threatened to spoil the spirit of the Vancouver Games before they opened.

Germany’s Felix Loch was the leader after the first two heats of men’s singles were completed Saturday night without major incident on a track made shorter, slower and safer in the wake of Nodar Kumaritashvili’s death during a training run the day before.

“Life will go on,” said U.S. Olympic rookie Chris Mazdzer of Saranac Lake, N.Y. “And everyone’s classifying this sport as dangerous. It’s so unfortunate what happened. Every track in the world, there’s always spots where it can happen. This is just the first time that it actually has. It’s tragic, but everyone coming and showing up here, it builds you up as a slider.”

Germany’s David Moeller was second, followed by Italy’s Armin Zoeggeler, the two-time defending Olympic champ. American Tony Benshoof was seventh heading into Sunday’s final two runs.

Russia’s Albert Demtschenko, who won silver four years ago in Turin, was fourth and conceded he won’t leave with Canadian gold.

“I am too late,” he said, dismissively waving his right hand. “It is over.”

There was only one fearful moment, when Swiss rider Stefan Hoehener nearly flipped exiting a turn. But he somehow recovered, scrambled back aboard after a long skid and finished his second run, drawing a huge roar from the packed grandstand.

The day ended festively. Hours earlier, that hardly seemed possible.

As the morning sun played peek-a-boo above Blackcomb Mountain, athletes arrived to find a different track than the one they left Friday following Kumaritashvili’s crash.

During the night, workers constructed a wooden wall to cover the row of steel beams that he hit at nearly 90 mph. Others were wrapped in padding.

To slow speeds, officials changed course and shortened the run, decreeing that men would go from the women’s start, and the women and doubles from the juniors’ start. Also, the contour of the final, sweeping turn had been changed to prevent sleds from drifting too high onto the curved walls.

Then the track was reopened for training.

Someone had to be first. It was Benshoof.

The top U.S. medal hope in men’s luge, he drew a breath of mountain air, secured the visor over his face and dropped down this elevator shaft of ice not knowing what to expect.

He glided to the bottom, slower but safer.

“Unfortunately, there was a terrible tragedy,” said Benshoof, a three-time Olympian competing with at least three herniated discs, plus an aching foot from a brush with the Whistler track wall. “But at the end of the day we have a competition to go through and I tried to put it all out of my head.”

That was almost impossible.

Reminders of Kumaritashvili’s death seemed to be everywhere — from the reconfigured final curve and raised wall, to the black tape stuck to the helmets of some athletes. Flowers were left near turn 16. There was also a card with the inscription, “Just like gold, your dream will live forever.”

A moment of silence was held before the first heat of the men’s competition. His photo was displayed on a video scoreboard.

“It’s still fresh in our hearts,” said Shiva Keshavan from India. “We’re not able to compete with that same joy.”

Kumaritashvili’s teammate, Levan Gureshidze, did not race. He was on the official start list for the first heat but withdrew, telling other racers he couldn’t go on.

“I gave him a hug and told him I understood,” said Ruben Gonzalez, who lives in Texas and races for Argentina.

International Luge Federation officials said the start changes were made with the “emotional component” of athletes in mind following Kumaritashvili’s death.

While all the changes seemed to satisfy IOC officials, they appeared to be a concession by luge’s governing body and Vancouver organizers that the $110 million track, built to be the world’s fastest, was beyond what some competitors could handle.

“We never said it is too fast,” FIL president Josef Fendt insisted.

But even to the untrained eye, it was obvious the lugers were crawling compared to the zooming speeds they reached in the first days of practice.

Not everyone seemed happy.

“It’s slow,” said Austria’s Manuel Pfister, who was clocked at almost 96 mph on Thursday. “It’s completely different. Yesterday, I was able to slide with the medal ranks, today it’s another race. It’s difficult for me. Maybe it’s now too easy.”

The decision to change the start’s location seemed to have the desired effect during men’s training, the first session on the track after Kumaritashvili’s terrifying crash. None of the athletes broke 90 mph after speeds routinely surpassed 95 mph earlier in the week.

“The changes that they made were positive,” Benshoof said. “I didn’t notice them going down the track itself. Of course, now, with a lowered start, it’s significantly slower, significantly easier and significantly safer. Personally, I’d rather go from up top because that’s kind of my personality and my driving style.

“But I think generally speaking, it was a good decision.”

Two women’s training runs were completed without a problem in a light rain. Earlier this week, there was a nasty wreck involving a Romanian women’s luger and a few other crashes.

Kumaritashvili’s death was believed to be the first on a sanctioned luge track since December 1975, the federation said.

“It was very hard,” Keshavan said. “All of us had a meeting at the village and thought of how we could remember him, how we could honor his memory, his ideals, what he fought for. Everybody was trying to pull me up saying you still have to cheer up, ‘We’re all remembering him. We’re all together.’

“We have to go on,” he added.

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AP Sports Writer John Wawrow contributed to this story.

 

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