Posted: Feb 14, 8:09p ET | Updated: Feb 16, 4:56a ET

Loch locks down Olympic gold

The German 20-year-old is the youngest luge gold medalist in history
Germany's Felix Loch celebrates his first-ever Olympic medal in the men's singles event at the Whistler Sliding Centre on Sunday, Feb. 14. He is the youngest luge gold medalist in history.
Germany's Felix Loch celebrates his first-ever Olympic medal in the men's singles event at the Whistler Sliding Centre on Sunday, Feb. 14. He is the youngest luge gold medalist in history.

WHISTLER, British Columbia (AP) - Moments after being dethroned as Olympic luge champion, Italy's Armin Zoeggeler was asked to size up the new gold medalist - the German kid with the big feet, the one who slept like a baby the night before his biggest race, the one who devours a steak every chance he gets.

"He's a very good boy and very young," Zoeggeler said of Felix Loch. "A very good talent. The next years, his name will be there."

Just 20, Loch's already king of the mountain.

Blazing down the ice on a reconfigured track that seemed to slow everyone but him, Loch coasted to an easy win Sunday, becoming the youngest luger to ever win Olympic gold and providing a moment of comfort for a sport still on edge following the tragic death of Georgia's Nodar Kumaritashvili.

Loch completed his four heats over two days in 3 minutes, 13.085 seconds, well ahead of teammate David Moeller (3:13.764) and the great Zoeggeler (3:14.375), the 2002 and 2006 Olympic champion who added a fifth medal to his collection.

"Five?" Zoeggeler said, not exactly sure of his bounty. "Five. I'm very, very happy for the bronze medal ... we had a good race."

More importantly, a safe one.

Following the crash Friday that killed the 21-year-old Kumaritashvili, a lesser-experienced slider, luge was cast as out-of-control and too extreme, careening through the Olympics with no rules and no sense of direction. But after two days of clean competition, it's back on track.

For the moment.

Kumaritashvili'sl crash led luge officials to shorten the track, with the intent to make it safer, by lowering the starting lines.

Before the men's final two heats, some of the top women complained that the changes had made the snarling 16-curve track too easy.

"It's not fun," German gold medal hopeful Natalie Geisenberger said, adding that the course now essentially seems like one built for children. "It's for all the same. But I'm not happy. It's not for ladies. It's a kinder start."

The women's course is now about 800 feet shorter than what they came to Canada expecting. The new start is flatter, putting a premium on racers getting a clean line into the first turn. If they don't, any chance for a medal could be lost by the second curve.

"It'll make or break the race," U.S. women's luger Erin Hamlin said.

Doubles sliders will now compete from the same start as the women, and got their first look on Sunday night when training began for their Wednesday competition.

American driver Christian Niccum insisted moving the start was the right call.

"I think it shows respect to Nodar and to the whole situation," Niccum said. "It's just the right thing to do. ... When a tragedy happens, we all have to take a step back and analyze what has happened and show respect to what has happened. I think that's what we're doing. I think we'll be back at the old start in the future. But for this situation, for this time, it's the right choice."

Tony Benshoof wasn't so sure.

Appearing in his third and final Olympics, Benshoof couldn't build enough speed on the redesigned course and finished a disappointing eighth, four spots back from where he was in 2006.

"This was a big letdown," said Benshoof, who spent two years preparing for Whistler's steep start. "This was my track. It is my track. I excel at high speeds and high risk. Unfortunately, they lowered the start and it's like running the downhill men's ski race down a bunny hill. It's a whole different deal.

"But I'm not making excuses," he added. "We all had the same situation."

For Loch, who has trained in BMW's wind tunnels, it didn't matter where he started.

He was fastest, by far.

Born in Koenigssee, his country's sliding capital, the 20-year-old returned Germany to luge's summit by dethroning Zoeggeler, who was trying to match German luging legend Georg Hackl's record of winning gold in three straight Olympic games.

It's a mark that Loch may one day surpass.

"It's going to be tough to knock that guy off," Canada's Ian Cockerline said. "If he can maintain this, he could be on top for a long time."

Already a two-time world champion, Loch surpassed countryman Dettlef Gunther as the youngest Olympic gold medalist. Gunther was 21 when he won gold at the Innsbruck Games in 1976. Hackl, now a coach on the German team, won his first as a 25-year-old at Albertville in 1992.

Of the 13 golds awarded in Olympic luge, nine have gone to Germans.

From the start, Loch was in a class by himself. He posted the fastest times in all four runs, taming a track that had a terrifying reputation long before Friday's crash. He had been bitten by the Whistler beast before. During an international training week in 2008, Loch crashed and tore ligaments in both shoulders, an injury that caused him to miss three World Cup events.

He began the day leading Moeller by two-tenths of a second. Then he more than doubled it after his third run and readied for his gold-medal descent more than one second ahead of Zoeggeler, the nine-time World Cup champ who has hinted at retirement.

As he completed the final, sweeping right turn out of curve 16, Loch passed the steel support pole that ended Kumaritshavili's life. The girder is now covered by a wooden wall, constructed before the track reopened Saturday.

"When I was in (curve) 16, I knew it was a good run," he said. "It was unbelievable."

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