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Winter Olympics: Calgary : Pressure Is to Win This Time : U.S. Luge Team Optimistic but Still Cautious

February 11, 1988|THOMAS BONK | Times Staff Writer

Sure, there's still pressure on the U.S. luge team in Calgary. Only this time, it's a different kind.

Before, there was pressure not to get embarrassed. The U.S. was born to luge, all right, and not to win anything either. Americans were on the wrong track. They were going downhill, but not nearly fast enough.

Now, the U.S. is facing an altogether different kind of pressure.

Brace yourself. What sport do you think could be the Americans' best chance for a medal?

Luge.

Yes, luge, that sport dominated by Europeans in which you lie on your back on a sled and slide down an icy track at about 65 m.p.h. American lugers are actually given a chance to win a medal, or medals.

If this were to happen, it would not only be regarded as a gigantic leap into respectability, it might also represent a kind of challenge they've never had to worry about before.

Look at the numbers. In 1976 at Innsbruck, the best U.S. finish was 21st. At Lake Placid in 1980, it was 12th. In 1984 at Sarajevo, it was 14th. That leaves a lot of ice to cover in sliding up (down?) into the top three, which is where the medals are.

Wolfgang Schaedler, the U.S. coach, is coaching patience. But at the same time he's optimistic about his team's chances. Please, don't talk about medals, though.

"I think this team has made a great improvement over the last couple of years," he said. "I know we have the strongest team we've ever had. But you know, the Olympics is different than other races. We have to do the right things at the right time at the right place. I think we can fix our goals high. But I don't think it's a very good idea when we say we have a chance for a medal.

"We have a chance for a medal, for sure, but the first thing we have to do is bring so many people as possible into the top 10," he said.

Can the U.S. win a medal? Possibly so, and if it happens, chances are it will be in the women's singles, where the Americans are putting two sliders on their sleds with big hopes of breaking East Germany's lock on the world's top three places.

The best sliders in the world are all East Germans. And among the women, no one is better than Cerstin Schmidt, who is backed by teammates Steffi Martin-Walter and Ute Oberhoffer. But for the first time, the U.S. may giving the East Germans a run. It's a two-way attack.

Bonny Warner, 25, formerly of Mt. Baldy and now living in the Bay Area, has more international top five finishes than any other U.S. slider and she has America's only gold medal in luge, which she won at the World Cup Race at Lake Placid last February.

Although there is much expected of Warner, it's possible that teammate Cammy Myler is going to have at least as much pressure on her, maybe not now, but soon enough. At 19, Myler is probably the future of women's luge in the U.S.

Myler is going to be able to compete with the Europeans, maybe because she trained the way they do. She started when she was 11, right after the Lake Placid Olympics, where her parents worked as volunteers at the luge track. That same year, Myler won the National Junior Olympics. She was the U.S. junior women's champion for three years and in 1985 won the U.S. senior national title. Myler was 16, the youngest person ever to win that event.

Myler came of age on the international circuit in the 1986-87 season, becoming the first U.S. woman ever to win a medal in senior international competition when she placed third in a World Cup race in Sarajevo in December, 1986. Then she went one better than that. Last March, Myler became the only U.S. woman to win two international medals when she got a bronze at a World Cup race in Lake Placid.

Myler finished the season in seventh place in the overall World Cup point standings. Warner finished fourth, which sets up a fairly interesting competition between teammates. Myler knows that she is destined to replace Warner as the No. 1 singles slider, but she thinks it may happen before some people think.

"I don't think I necessarily have to wait until Bonny retires to do that," Myler said. "I think there will be a time when it happens."

It probably won't happen in Calgary. In the face of increased expectations, Schaedler has been busy cutting those expectations down to size. Last racing season, the U.S. had 23 top-10 finishes in World Cup events and much of the credit goes to Schaedler, a 29-year-old former slider from Liechtenstein who retired after the Sarajevo Olympics.

Schaedler believes it important to keep the American rise in luge in the right perspective. Do not talk about medals. Talk about finishing in the top 10 or top 5.

"That's what I try to do," he said. "I think it's the best thing for us to do right now. Because, you know, we can make good results and we can make top five finishes, maybe better, I don't know. It's tough to say. I think a finish in the top five is a great finish. But when we talk about medals the whole time, people expect them. We have to see the improvement, first, too."

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