ALBERTVILLE, France — This is an Olympic story, the best kind, the kind that doesn’t end in a medal and really doesn’t have to. It’s the story of a college kid who carried a torch in Lake Placid, N.Y., and, on a dare from a friend, jumped on a luge sled and sort of fell into this whole new world. Had that never happened — had she never been at the track that day, wearing a new sweater that she ripped to shreds when she scraped against the ice walls, and she didn’t even care because when she finished her virgin ride she came up hollering “YEEEHAH!” and she was hooked — had that never happened, Bonny Warner might today be just another engineer in just another American company, pulling down a paycheck, watching TV, going to TGI Friday’s on weekends.
Instead, she has had this incredible life, been around the world, made friends in countless nations, had one adventure after another. She ends her athletic career today and Wednesday, in the women’s single luge. And then she peels off the speed suit and says good-bye. Unless she wins a medal — and she probably won’t — you might never know she exists.
But you ought to.
I first met Bonny when I was a young reporter traveling with the luge team through Europe. She was blonde and loud and funny and spirited, and it seemed that everywhere we went, she had friends. It was 1983, and luge was even less known in America than it is today. The U.S. team was about a dozen stouthearted speed nuts who traveled from country to country with their sleds tied to the top of a van, their clothes packed in duffel bags and their meal money often limited to whatever a candy bar cost at a gas station. You had to love this sport to endure it; you had to love climbing onto a sled and dropping into a frozen track, which curved like a snake and whipped you to 60 m.p.h. between its horrifying ice walls.
Bonny Warner loved it. At the time, she was the best hope America had in women’s luge. That first ride back in Lake Placid had piqued her interest enough that she tried a two- week luge camp — which she paid for by selling her Olympic pin collection — and that camp had been enough to make her want to train in Europe. One problem: She was a college student. Where would the money come from?
The phone rang. It was an official from Levi Strauss, who informed Bonny she had just won $5,000 in a sweepstakes contest.
This stuff happens only in movies, right?
“You know how I won that?” Warner laughed the other night. “I had been shopping with my mom at The Gap in California. She was buying something for my
sister and I was bored, so I filled in this entry and dropped it in a box.”
On such moments can a life turn. . . . Learning the luge
Of course, Bonny could have blown the money. Bought a car. Bought a vacation. Instead she bought a sled. And a plane ticket to West Germany. And she showed up at a luge track in Konigssee and told them she wanted to learn how to do what they did. So surprised were the Germans at the sight of this American student who spoke only English and didn’t even know that there were track fees to pay, that they accepted her, gave her a job, and let her learn. And learn. And learn. . . .
By the time she rejoined her U.S. peers she was, by their standards, a player. And thus began a wonderful 12-year journey of snow-covered towns in Switzerland and Austria and East and West Germany, week after week, race after race, winter after winter. She would go to school in the warm months — at Stanford — and maintain her training by practicing on a summer sled on wheels. She worked at luge tracks, she worked as a waitress, she worked as a nanny, she worked in the college cafeteria. The money came, the money went. You didn’t think about money. You thought about going faster. You thought about zipping through those narrow ice straightaways. You thought about those cramped hotels and those bumpy van rides and the new friends you made and the adventures you had. . . .
You thought about marching in the Olympic ceremonies.
“The first time I really felt like an Olympian was in Sarajevo, 1984, when they gave us our team jacket,” Warner said. “I never had money to spend on clothes, and here they were giving us this sheepskin coat. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this is the most expensive jacket I’ve ever owned!’ And then I looked inside, and it said ‘Made especially for the U.S. Olympic team.’ I was, like, wow. . . .
“Then, when we were inside the tunnel for the opening ceremonies, I heard the noise of the crowd. And when we stepped into the stadium, I saw all those people cheering and waving flags. And I just burst into tears. . . . ” Her final rides
Bonny Warner is 29 now. These are her third and last Olympics. She wept in Sarajevo. She wept in Calgary. And last Saturday, under a winter moon in Albertville, when the announcer bellowed “Les Etats-Unis!” she got the wet eyes again. Maybe because it was her last time. Maybe because there are still people out there — despite the Carl Lewises and the NBA marketing types — who feel that wearing USA on your back is about as big a thrill as you can get.
Bonny Warner never won an Olympic medal — her best finish was sixth in Calgary — so her career memories are not about gold, silver or bronze. If you ask me, they’re better. They’re about moments, funny, touching, such as the time she got lost with a Yugoslavian cab driver, who drove her around for an hour, then was so apologetic he refused to consider a tip. Or the time she worked for a German family and the father asked her, in German, to make sure she cleaned “da groh” and rather than ask what that meant, she cleaned everything in the house, only to learn that “groh” meant toilet.
The places she has gone! The things she has seen! East Germany, Russia, Romania. Places that will never be the same again. Before luge, she had never been out of North America; as of this week, she has visited more than 30 countries, has friends with whom she can stay in at least 25, and has made enough of an impression in Germany that a letter sent to her recently marked
“Bonny Warner, Konigssee” was automatically delivered to her old house by a postman who remembered her from 12 years ago.
I don’t know what you pay for stories such as that. I do know you can’t buy them on the stock exchange.
“It’s funny,” Warner said the other night, sitting in the lounge of her team’s hotel. “I was always a pretty good athlete. I could have gone out for basketball or swimming, the big scholarship sports. But I had this thing for the small sports. I guess I like the underdog. I like small villages like this, getting to know the people.”
She laughed and looked around. There were bobsledders from around the world playing cards at the next table and lugers from around the world tapping their feet to a calypso band. As a reporter, I felt very much an outsider. Not Bonny. She belonged. A citizen of the world.
This is the part of the Olympics that they never talk about, how the sports can take you from a small-town kid and stretch you, enrich you, pull you around the globe and leave you on a much higher plane than you could ever have reached in your own backyard. Bonny Warner is retiring from luge Wednesday, a dozen years after that fateful first ride in her new sweater, but there is very little of that college freshman left. In its place is a woman who will always see life as another adventure, the art of the possible, confident, optimistic. She has no medals. But she has perspective. She has wisdom. She has a hell of a scrapbook. For that, she can thank a sled.
“Sometimes I think where I’d be if I didn’t go on the track that day,” she said. “I’d probably be working for some company, just another part of the population that didn’t know much about luge.”
Instead, next month, she rejoins her real life job: flying 727 jets, as a second officer for United Airlines. She says sometimes, coming through the clouds, it feels like a luge run, the whole world a white blur.
I have to smile. I remember that energetic kid riding the vans back in 1983, and I figure it’s only fitting that Bonny Warner enter the friendly skies. That’s where you end up, I suppose, when you shoot for the stars.