At the Olympics, luge sliders will reach speeds of up to 95 miles per hour at the Whistler Sliding Centre. Competitors will cover the newly built 1,450-meter long, 16-curve course in just over a minute and a half. Despite its brevity, storylines abound. Here are five to follow in February.
Remsen's world champion
Remsen, N.Y., population 1,958, is home to 2009 world champion Erin Hamlin. After surprising herself by qualifying for Torino at age 19, Hamlin made history in 2009 by becoming the first American woman ever and the first non-German since 1993 to win a world championship. Following the historic title, congratulatory signs lined Main Street. Don't think Remsenites are only now jumping on the bandwagon. Hamlin's photograph has been on display at the town hall ever since she competed at the 2006 Games. Following the win, her stature has increased tenfold. A '50s style ice cream shop and restaurant called The Soda Fountain recently named a sundae, "The Erin Hamlin." Though Hamlin represents America's strongest luge medal hope in Vancouver, following her world title with Olympic gold will be a tall order -- she was crowned world champion on her home track in Lake Placid with more than 100 friends and family supporters in the stands. Nevertheless, Hamlin has proved she has the talent to top the world's best, after taking three bronze medals during the 2009-10 World Cup. Expect a raucous Remsen if Hamlin becomes the first American singles luger, male or female, to win an Olympic medal.
Zoeggeler vs. Loch
When three-time Olympic gold medalist Georg Hackl of Germany retired from the sport following Torino, it left a void in the department of successful, outsized personality on the circuit. The man who had replaced him on the pedestal of luge royalty, Armin Zoeggeler of Italy, is hardly the jovial sort. In fact, the twice-reigning Olympic champion is known both as "The Cannibal," due to his icy concentration in competition, and, "The Ice-Blooded Champion," for his cool demeanor off the track. Enter wunderkind Felix Loch of Germany. At the 2008 World Championships, Loch became the youngest world champion in luge history at 18 years old. The German teenager repeated as world champion in 2009. Suddenly, Zoeggeler, 36, has a young challenger in a sport known more for its aged athletes. The intricacies of luge, which determine the thousandths of a second, take years to master, making Loch's rise even the more impressive. "He's strong, he's tall, he's a perfect athlete," says Hackl, one of his coaches. "But his greatest advantage -- his greatest advantage is his mental strength. Unbelievable." A gold medal for Loch in 2010 would signal a German renaissance as well as the end of The Cannibal reign.
Fast and the fearless
The Whistler Sliding Centre, site of the bobsled, skeleton and luge events, has quickly developed a fearsome reputation since it opened in the fall of 2008. "It's fast, very fast," Hamlin says. Tony Benshoof, luge veteran of the 2002 and 2006 Winter Games (finished fourth at the latter), is one of several athletes to call it the fastest in the world. Benshoof says. "You have a three or four inch window. And if you're not right on that line, you're in trouble." Located on Blackcomb Mountain, the track has a vertical drop of nearly 500 feet, making it the world's steepest. The sliders will approach five G's when hurtling around the 16 corners. It is the 15th international event sliding track in the world and just the fourth in North America -- previous Olympic host cities Lake Placid, Calgary and Salt Lake City/Park City are home to the others. Not that the g-force, speed, or inherent danger is going to deter a bunch of athletes who have voluntarily chosen such a hazardous profession. "It's also a lot of fun," Hamlin says, "No other track is like it."
A winning pair
Doubles sliders Mark Grimmette and Brian Martin are the most successful luge athletes in U.S. history. The pair has won three overall World Cup titles and two Olympic medals (bronze in 1998, silver in 2002) in four appearances together. Above and beyond the training and natural ability, they attribute their success to compatible personalities - both tend to be easy-going, quiet and rather cerebral. The fourteen years spent as luge partners have also forged an extensive list of shared interests. Grimmette and Martin are jointly involved with woodworking projects, making modifications to their sled, wake surfing on Lake Placid, and, as of last summer, judging BBQ competitions for charity. The veteran sliders have been plagued by chronic back problems in recent years, registering a Did Not Finish in Torino. Thanks to a new training regime and insider knowledge of the Lake Placid track, they managed to win a sixth world bronze medal in 2009. Still, Grimmette and Martin, at 39 and 36 respectively, should be considered only a long shot in February.
Though Hamlin enters the 2010 Games as reigning world champion, the women's competition is the Germans' to lose. Germany has swept the women's podium at the 2002 and 2006 Winter Olympic Games (one of only two events at each to do so), and has had Germans filling out the overall World Cup podium for the past eight years. Simply, their dominance in the sport is sublime, and shows no signs of stopping. Germany will send the maximum three women to Vancouver and all could win the gold. Of the German sliders, Tatjana Huefner is arguably the favorite. After taking the Olympic bronze at 23 in Torino, Huefner won the 2007 and 2008 world title and the past two overall World Cup crowns. Sliders Natalie Geisenberger and Anke Wischnewski could also find gold in 2010.