Europeans Love Their Luge

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The Winter Olympics are under way. Some of the first events are women's hockey, freestyle skiing and luge. Although luge may not be so well known on American soil, it enjoys tremendous popularity in Europe.

SCOTT SIMON, host: Some of the first events at the Winter Olympics today are women's ice hockey, freestyle skiing, and luge. That's the sport where athletes lie on their backs on sleds and steer with their feet. Luge is huge in parts of Europe, but this year the U.S. has a luge slider, Tony Benshoof, who could win a medal. NPR's Chris Arnold reports.

CHRIS ARNOLD reporting:

Curve 18 towards the end of the luge track is where the luge sliders rocket into their top speeds. It's one thing to see luge on television, but when you're standing next to the track, it's actually pretty startling to see how fast these guys are going. First you hear a rumbling sound, then you see the luge sled go hurdling by, the driver flattened up against the track from the centrifigal force.

(Soundbite of luge)

ARNOLD: Wow, he was really moving.

Ms. ASHLEY HAYDEN (World Cup Luge Medalist): Yeah. This is the fastest section of the track, and I wouldn't be surprised that actually during the Olympic race if it's over 90 miles an hour.

ARNOLD: 24-year old Ashley Hayden from Westborough, Massachusetts is a World Cup luge medalist. She's not competing in the Olympics, but she came to help out her teammates. She points to curve 18 here.

Ms. HAYDEN: So at that point you're fighting the G's. You're trying to keep your head up so that you can see and you can keep the sled on course. And it's really tough to describe, but it's, you know, it's just like a pure adrenalin rush. You're laying on your back going 90 miles an hour, trying to steer this little sled down.

ARNOLD: These are the last practice runs that the Olympic contenders will get, and on one of them a slider loses control and gets pounded up against the wooden wall at the top edge of this curve and thrown off his sled.

(Soundbite of luge)

ARNOLD: The sled goes flying on ahead of the driver, who is okay. Most of the single sliders usually are. But it's much tougher in doubles. Those athletes are strapped to the sled and each other. U.S. Olympic team member Christian Niccum had a bad crash training in doubles luge earlier this winter.

Mr. CHRISTIAN NICCUM (U.S. Olympic Luge Team): I made it down to curve 18, and the sled just, the steering just went away from me and I slammed up into the woods and ended up cracking my helmet, and spent the night in the hospital. I had a really bad concussion, which took me off the sled for about four weeks.

ARNOLD: Niccum is racing in single's luge at the Olympics. He's standing at the finish line with the rest of the U.S. men's team. The best U.S. single's slider here is Tony Benshoof. Benshoof is 30 years old. He's dedicated his entire adult life to luge. He doesn't have much money or fame to show for it, but he now stands a good chance of winning a medal this weekend. He says, though, he's trying not to think about that.

Mr. TONY BENSHOOF (U.S. Olympic Luge Team): You can't think about the podium when you're in Curve 3, that's for sure. I mean an inch to the left, an inch to the right at any given corner, and that's it. All you can do is your best. And I'm feeling great and I'm confident. We'll see what happens.

ARNOLD: As if guiding the sled with your feet with pinpoint accuracy at crazy speeds wasn't hard enough, top sliders like Benshoof have to do something more, do it blind. It's more aerodynamic in the straight-aways if you lay your head back so far that you can't see. And in some of the high G-force curves, he says you lose your head. That is, it gets forced back so far that you're sledding blind. Benshoof says at that point you just have to relax, not panic, and feel your way through the turn.

Mr. BENNSHOOF: There's a tremendous amount of spatial awareness that's required in this sport, and you got to steer at exactly the right point, and you got to just feel that in your soul.

ARNOLD: After the practice runs, German slider David Molar(ph) walks up to American slider Jonathan Myles and asks if he wants to get dinner. They'll be racing against each other in the Olympics, but Myles tells me and Christian Niccum that he's been hanging out with the German a lot.

Mr. JONATHAN MYLES (U.S. Olympic Luge Team): His girlfriend broke up with his last week, so I went and hung, whatever. He's totally cool with that. So whatever, I went and hung out with him at his home, you know, at his apartment and stuff. Yeah, we're real good buddies.

ARNOLD: Myles has even been working out at the Germans' gym with Molar, something he says some of the older German coaches are not too happy about.

Chris Arnold, NPR News, Turin.

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