by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

CALGARY, Alberta — The van that would take me to the greatest adventure of my life was speeding toward the East German border. The driver, a bearded man called Bob (Bullet) Hughes, was talking nonstop. He wore a red cap, to hide his bald head, and furry boots, one of which was slammed on the gas.
“LUGERS LOVE SPEED!” he yelled over the engine. I forced a smile. Hughes was manager of the U.S. luge team, a ragtag group of ice sledders who raced, feet-first, down a winding ice track at speeds up to 70 m.p.h. — with nothing but a helmet and prayers to protect them. Insane? Of course they were insane. Would you do that?

I would. Oh, I didn’t know I would back in that van. All I knew then was that I was a young free-lance writer who had spent his last $500 to get over there, and please God, let there be a story, so I could sell it and pay my rent in New York.

“I should warn you,” Hughes said as we reached the border crossing, a dark, concrete place filled with stern-looking guards. “We could have some trouble. My papers aren’t in order.”

He paused.

“Also, I’m smuggling in two turkeys for Thanksgiving.”

“Turkeys?” I said. . . .

What crazy turns life takes. They lit the Olympic torch here Saturday to start the XV Winter Games, and that’s all I could think about, that ride, that trip, that November five years ago when I hooked on with the luge team and fell into a world of speed and adventure. It was the closest I would ever come to being an Olympian. I remember all of it.

“This is the reporter I was telling you about,” Hughes said, introducing me once we arrived, after midnight, at the team’s small, dorm-like quarters in Oberhof, East Germany.

I nodded hello. These were athletes? There was Frank Masley, a thin, bespectacled draftsman from Delaware, and Tim Nardiello, long hair, unshaven, and Bonny Warner, a freshman from Stanford, and Dick Healy, an auto mechanic, and Toni D’Amengella, a high school junior, and Svein Romstad, a Norwegian coach, and half a dozen others, just sitting around, dressed in socks and long johns. They looked like orphans. And they gaped at me as if I had come down the chimney with a bag of toys. A reporter? For them?

“Uh, when was the last story you had written about you?” I asked.

No one could remember.

“Don’t worry,” Hughes said, putting an arm around me with a devious laugh,
“you’re one of us now. We’ll give you a good story.”

This, I soon discovered, was what he meant: I would sleep on the floor in a room with Hughes and Romstad. I would wake at dawn, help them load the sleds

in the van, ride to the ice track, unload, march up and down dozens of times, hands in pockets, feet numb, face frozen. Sometimes I would drive the lugers from the bottom to the top (nearly three-quarters of a mile). Sometimes I would fetch helmets, or gloves, or sandpaper. Sometimes I would stand alongside the ice and yell messages. Remember “Whisper Down The Lane”? This was “Holler Up the Hill.” Someone would yell something, the person 30 yards up would listen, turn, yell it, the next person up would listen, turn, yell it, until the words worked their way to the top of the track.

The Americans were amateurs in the truest — and least expensive — sense of the word. Training meals were often candy bars purchased along the highway. Speed suits were old and torn and patched with carpet tape. These lugers paid for everything themselves, including gas.

They raced. They practiced. They drank beer and dreamed about the Olympics. I took it all down, filling a dozen notebooks. But in a funny way, I began to feel a part of it, too. I was bounced from room to room (or floor to floor) until I got to know all the team members, especially those who snored. When I joined them they were training for a 10-day, three- country race — East Germany, Austria and West Germany. I can still see the food on the tables in Oberhof: old cheese, mystery meat, rolls so hard we called them
“hand grenades.”

“INCOMING!” someone would yell as he tossed one into the air.

Then the food fight would begin.

Lugers lie supine on their sleds, steer with their feet, and never, never, lift their heads up to see where they’re going — lest they shift weight and crash into the walls. A luge ride is the ultimate rush, because every instinct tells you to get up, and every lesson tells you: Do it and you’re dead.

Well, somewhere along the way, after watching hundreds of runs down the track, I got the idea that maybe I should try this, to see what it was like. Perhaps, I thought, I could become good enough one day to go for the Olympics myself. After all, how many Americans were even interested in this? When I mentioned it to Hughes and Romstad, they grinned and said, “Soon,” although they seemed to have some mischief in mind.

Meanwhile, we traveled on, from Oberhof to West Germany to Austria. Who back home even knew we were here, on these snowy European highways? At that point, no American had ever won a medal in a World Cup luge race, let alone the Olympics.

Maybe that was part of the fun, being such underdogs. I still remember standing with the American team members, saluting as the Russians marched by, then doing cheap imitations of authoritative coaches (“You VILL do VAT I SAY!”). The East Germans and Czechs would nod when they passed. More imitations.

One of our lugers, a guy named Ron Rossi, was in love with a luger named Sue on the Canadian team. During competitions he would sneak out at night, stuffing a pillow under his covers in case somebody checked. “Cover for me,” he once told me. I happily agreed.

There was Bo Jamieson, blond, tall, as handsome as any ski instructor, and his partner, Terry, whose brother had been killed in a bobsledding accident. There was Romstad, the Norwegian coach, whose knowledge of German helped us con two women into dancing with us in a small Austrian nightclub one night. I remember holding the woman at a distance, like a piece of porcelain, and just sort of smiling, because I didn’t know a word of her language, nor she mine.

There was a lot of laughter, singing, teasing, sweating. There were late nights in Austrian bars, and late nights in West German bars. Luge racers needn’t be in great shape as much as they need to be heavy. “Weight is speed,” they will tell you, so a couple of beers won’t hurt. And pass the potatoes.

Which brings us to the turkeys. Something about winter in a foreign country can really make you homesick. So it was that we took those turkeys, which Hughes had smuggled in my first night, and brought them to an East German cook, who had never seen such creatures, and told him what to do. Warner made a stuffing out of white bread, and red potatoes doubled as yams. That night, everyone put on a clean shirt, even Healy, the auto mechanic, and we sat at the dining room table. “Happy Thanksgiving,” we said, raising our glasses, and even the cook joined in the toast.

The day came, finally, when I was to get on a sled. Now, mind you, by this point, I had already seen two lugers come flying out of the track and taken away to hospitals. I had seen the bruises and cuts and gashes on the Americans’ bodies from collisions with the walls. And suddenly, there I was, alongside a serpentine ice track in Igls, Austria, surrounded by these men and women who had become my friends.

“Get in,” they said.

I wanted to start around Curve 12, which was as close to the bottom as you could get without walking.

“A real man would go from Curve 7,” Romstad said.

I got in at Curve 9.

They pushed. I was off. How can I describe that first ride? I would like to tell you what I saw, except the minute the sled started to move, I began panting like a dog and fogged the visor on my helmet. And then the bumping started. Scrape! Oops. Hit the wall. Scrape! Oops. Now into a curve, suddenly I was on my side, no, now I was flat again, then on my side, then flat, bump, scrape, side, flat, bum-bum-bum-bum-bum, up, curve, down, flat, up, down, and whoa, I was stopping, I was stopping, thank you, Lord, I will never sin again!

A huge breath exploded from my lungs. The visor cleared. In one magic moment, having realized all my body parts were safe, I suddenly knew what it was that attracted these guys to this crazy sport. I also knew my Olympic dreams were over. I could never master this. Filled with humility, I reached for the side of the track to get out, as I had seen them do hundreds of times. Of course, it helps to pick the right side. I did not. Hooking it with one arm, I yanked my body up, over, and splat! I fell flat in the snow.

And there, wet, cold and embarrassed, I heard a funny sound. Clapping. I pushed the wetness from my eyes, and, looking up, I saw the team just a few feet away, smiling, laughing, but clapping, yelling, “Way to go” and “All right!”

In all the years and all the sports that have followed, I never felt closer to a bunch of athletes than that.

Time and money change everything. The U.S. luge team here is greatly improved, filled with new, young faces. Bonny Warner could win a medal this time. Masley, chosen the flag bearer for the 1984 Games, is now highly regarded as well. Hundreds of articles have been written about the sport, and team members no longer gape when a reporter shows up. The profits from the
’84 Summer Games gave luge more money than it ever dreamed of. Suddenly, there are new sleds and new uniforms and walkie- talkies, and nobody plays “Holler Up the Hill” anymore.

“Not the way it used to be, is it?” Masley said a few days ago, when I visited the track here. He was wearing a nice, new speed suit. No holes.

I nodded. Progress, money, technology. The way of the world. So be it. Maybe there will never be, for any American team anyhow, as footloose, ramshackle, wildly glorious time as the early days of luge. But for a brief few weeks that cold November, I tapped into it — and I think I saw what this Olympic spirit stuff is all about: working from scratch, with only dreams in your pocket.

And it was a blast. Someone told me they were thinking about history and great Olympic champions when they saw that flame lit Saturday. I smiled. I was thinking about turkeys.

* MEN: Singles: Frank Masley, Newark, Del.; Tim Nardiello, Lake Placid, N.Y.; Duncan Kennedy, Lake Placid, N.Y. Doubles: Joe Barile, Saddle River, N.J.; Steve Maher, Los Gatos, Calif., Tim Nardiello, Lake Placid, N.Y.; Miro Zajonc, Annapolis, Md.; Jon Owens, Bethel, Maine.
* WOMEN: Singles: Bonny Warner, Mount Baldy, Calif.; Cammy Mylar, Lake Placid, N.Y.; Erica Terwillegar, Lake Placid, N.Y.
* STAFF: Wolfgang Schaedler, Triesanberg, Liechtenstein (head coach); Ron Rossi, Lake Placid, N.Y. (assistant); Mary Ellen Fletcher, Long Island, N.Y.
(manager). CUTLINE: Our intrepid columnist speeds (sort of) down the luge course in the winter of 1983 at Igls, Austria. The 1984 U.S. luge team presented this picture to Mitch Albom shortly after his travels with the group. The Olympic luge events start today.


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New book, The Little Liar, arrives November 14. Get the details »

Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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