LAKE PLACID, N.Y. — Silke Kraushaar can lay claim to being the fastest woman on sled rails.
Last week she won the women's World Cup in luge (sledding) at Lake Placid, N.Y., for the second time in three years. She is the reigning Olympic champion in the sport. In Germany, where winter sports are more a sacred rite than a pastime, she is a national celebrity.
From top to bottom, Germany's women's luge team is perhaps the most dominant collection of amateur athletes in the world. If Kraushaar were to fail, seven of her colleagues might easily take her place atop the podium.
Each year, about 12 women compete for Germany's four World Cup positions. Those cut from the team are often faster than the top performers from other competitive countries like Austria, Canada, and Norway.
Case in point: In 1999, Sonja Wiedemann outpaced her teammates to claim gold at the world championships after failing to qualify for the World Cup earlier that season. Kraushaar herself had ridden the bench until a year before her 1998 Olympic debut at Nagano, Japan.
"They face a lot of pressure qualifying for their own team," says Wolfgang Harder, the team's spokesperson. "There are six or eight whose talent is almost equal." The result: The German women are virtually unbeatable. According to one admirer: "They are the Joe DiMaggio of women's sports."
The statistics are staggering. The team has not lost a race since 1997. It has won 37 straight international events and claimed 21 of the 30 Olympic medals since luge was added to the Winter Games in 1964. Austria, Germany's geographic and cultural neighbor, holds five.
The German women are expected to display their dominance again at the world championships this week in Calgary, Alberta.
Lugeing (from the French word for sledding) is a tradition in Austria and Germany, where the 10,000-foot peaks and shallow vales of the Alps are spread like fabric. There, sleds are as fundamental to life as bicycles in Beijing.
Unlike ice skating and skiing, however, outside of Europe luge is a sport buried in obscurity. One reason: It's extremely difficult, harrowing, and utterly quirky.
Sliders lie on their backs and navigate by twitching their toes and shrugging their shoulders. Though many amateurs simply steer down a mountainside, official luge tracks - a twisting trough of hardened ice and snow - often propel sliders to speeds exceeding 80 miles per hour. They zip through a half mile of dizzying turns lying feet first on nothing more than a tiny sled made of fiberglass and steel, wearing only aerodynamic bodysuits, clunky helmets, and spiked gloves, which they use to paddle the ice at the beginning of the race like a duck taking off from water.
The very essence of the sport is paradoxical. To go fast, the slider must be still - excessive motion slows the sled. In a sport where a sliver of a second separates first from fifth, the greatest challenge is not to move.
The reasons for the Germans' dominance are clear. The nation's schools teach luge to children as young as 8. And while there are only two luge tracks in the entire United States, Germany, a country about the size of Texas, has four.
Most Americans are first introduced to the sport during a rare moment of Olympic TV coverage. But in Germany, luge is part of the culture. The end product is a much larger pool of prospective athletes competing for the national team.
German sledders have the support, sometimes fanatical, of their countrymen and countrywomen. In 1998, the male slider Georg Hackl edged out tennis star Boris Becker and Formula One driver Michael Schumacker for German athlete of the year. Hackl's race in Nagano, Japan, drew Germany's largest television audience of the entire 1998 Olympic Games.
"It's not uncommon to see 20,000 people at a world championship in Germany," says Gordy Sheer, a former member of the US men's luge team. "Their television ratings are huge. They pull in Super Bowl numbers of viewers sometimes."
The US, Germany's equal in most other winter sports, is now making a push to bring the American luge program into the upperechelon of sliding, helped by a grant from telephone company Verizon. But in a country that has no cultural ties to the sport, the American team's task is colossal. Indeed, its recruitment program is a little like a lesson in Luge 101.
According to Sheer, who runs the program, coaches hold clinics across the country with children and teenagers, who often don't know a luge from a cutting board. "We just don't have nearly as many athletes to choose from," Sheer says.
Inexperience is the American team's greatest weakness, meaning next year's Winter Olympics at Salt Lake City might be too soon to see much success. But five years down the road, the team hopes to have a mature program.
Last week, American sliders Becky Wilczak, 20, and Ashley Hayden, 19, finished eighth and ninth, respectively.
Kraushaar doesn't seem too worried about the threat. "In a few years they will make pressure [for us]," she said.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society