LILLEHAMMER, Norway — On a luge track, you never make a stand, since doing so would send you smack into the wall. Your best control is to lie back on the sled and let gravity guide you over the serpentine ice — even at 80 m.p.h. “Gelling out,” is the phrase the athletes use.
I learned about this a dozen years ago in Lake Placid, N.Y., when I was hanging around a ragtag group of students and mechanics known as the U.S. luge team. It was the start of my career, and the start of their dreams.
I met Duncan Kennedy back then. He was 13 years old — a pain in the neck, as I recall. He was constantly around the track — his mom drove him over — looking for ice time, begging hints from the older sliders. He had a mop of brown hair and a squeaky voice and an adolescent face that seemed constructed from two piles of parts, the boy part and the man part.
Nonetheless, the older lugers were as protective of Duncan as a scientist is of a petri dish. Kennedy was a seed. The United States hadn’t built its first luge track until 1980, and most of the sliders began at college age or older. The rest of the world was far ahead because the top competitors — East Germans, Russians and Italians — had started as kids.
“Some day,” the American oldsters said, watching Kennedy like an immigrant watches his newborn child, “he’s gonna be the one.”
Time passed. I moved away from luge. But I kept tabs on Duncan Kennedy. I noticed him move up through the junior ranks. I was pleased when he competed in the 1988 Olympics, finishing 14th, and the 1992 games, finishing 10th.
He was rising just as predicted, our test model, the first American luge life. And though he had a few glitches — he quit the sport temporarily to pursue snowboarding — he pretty much followed his destiny. He was the first American to win a World Cup race. His European rivals respected him. He was in his mid- 20s now, with a love of surfing and Bart Simpson decals. A bit kooky, not exactly a team leader, but certainly the star. As Lillehammer drew closer, an Olympic medal in luge was no longer dreamed of in the United States
— it was predicted.
“Watch Duncan,” the elders said, “this is the year.”
But before he got here, something happened. He and his teammates were in a bar in Oberhof, Germany, when a group of skinheads began to hassle them. Mostly they hassled Duncan’s roommate, Robert Pipkins, who is black. They circled, mumbling, “Nigger, get out” and “Sieg Heil!”
And Duncan Kennedy, with a lifetime spent learning to “gel,” felt something strange stir inside him. Although he had never been in a fight before, he hurried Pipkins out of the bar, and then, to buy time, he turned to face the skinheads alone.
They beat him up.
Pipkins got away.
Somehow, Kennedy found the courage to go to the German police, still bleeding, and return to the bar to finger the creeps. Weeks later, he went back to Oberhof and testified at a trial that put them in jail.
So he had changed before he ever got to these Olympics; he had become a man. He had taken a stand and endured the consequences.
And now, Monday morning, Duncan Kennedy found himself atop the Olympic luge track, in a similar position. He was in fourth place, within microseconds of a bronze medal. He had told his family by the end of this run he would either be in first or out of the race. He had put a lifetime in this moment, and he knew what he wanted: not third, not second. He wanted to win.
The ice was hard, and Kennedy allowed his sled to run faster than it had ever run on this track. He whisked through the frozen curves in a glorious blur. Halfway down, he was dancing with the course record, sure to move up in the standings. Faster. Faster. This was risky, but Kennedy was suddenly the luge equal of Dallas coach Jimmy Johnson, blitzing on fourth down. Eight seconds from the finish. Faster!
And then . . . crash! His sled banged the wall, and the impact smacked him off like a table crumb. You could hear the thud halfway up the track. So great was his speed, Kennedy slid on his butt straight through the 13th and 14th curves, holding onto his sled runner, his uniform ripping. The rainbow of the U.S. luge program disappeared into a cloud.
But here is what Duncan Kennedy did next. He rose, and he walked off, limping, but with his head up. He spoke to reporters, and he said he wasn’t sorry.
“I was being aggressive, but I was being myself,” he said.
“I can accept this more than if I wasn’t doing as well as I could. . . .
“I’m mad as hell. I just crashed in the Olympics. But what can I say? . .
. I went for broke. That’s the sport.”
He shrugged, but he didn’t cry. And I watched Duncan Kennedy walk away. He is 26 now, a man; if he comes back for another Olympics, he’ll be 30, even older than the originals who cradled him in the sport.
In the press, Monday was a failure. America did not get its first luge medal. But when I think about Duncan Kennedy years ago and I see him now, defending a friend, going for glory at the Olympics, making no excuses, something hits me as terribly obvious: In a sport where lying back is the best advice, Duncan Kennedy, that runny-nosed kid, has grown into a stand-up guy.
A medal would only pale in comparison.