America's new pastime: luge?

The US is enjoying unprecedented success in winter sports where it has long struggled, raising hopes for medals in the 2010 Olympics.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    SPEED QUEEN: Lindsey Vonn, newly crowned World Cup champion, has high hopes for Vancouver.
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Vancouver, watch out.

With a year until the 2010 Olympics open, US athletes are doing historic things. During the past two Winter Games, America has plundered Olympic success by cashing in on new events such as snowboarding and mogul skiing. This winter, however, America is at last making inroads into the sports that make up the core of the winter program – that curious collection of events, from biathlon to Nordic combined, that inspire wild cowbell ringing among Europeans.

The luge, for example, could stake no claim to being America's pastime. Germany's pastime, perhaps. Until this winter, German women had won 99 consecutive international events over more than a decade. American luger Erin Hamlin stopped the streak short of 100, winning the most important event of this year's calendar, the World Championships. It was the first medal for a US woman in the sport.

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Hamlin's achievement is only one example of American emergence this year as a more powerful and well-rounded force in winter Olympic sports.

•On Saturday, alpine skier Lindsey Vonn became the first American woman to win back-to-back overall World Cup titles, an award intended to designate the world's best skier.

•In the Nordic combined, which combines ski jumping and cross-country skiing, the US team dominated the World Championships – taking two medals in one race. America has never won a Nordic combined Olympic medal.

Kikkan Randall became the first US woman to win a medal at the World Championships.

•The four-man bobsled team won its first World Championships in 50 years

Jeremy Teela won a medal on the World Cup tour for biathlon, which combines shooting and cross-country skiing, breaking a 17-year drought for the US.

In it to win it

The US even managed superlatives in one of the few traditional winter sports where it has historically fared well: speed skating. On the same Vancouver ice where the Olympics will be held next year, 19-year-old Trevor Marsicano last week won four World Championship medals in four days – unprecedented in US skating.

America's success at the World Championships, the most important event in non-Olympic years, in a wide array of winter sports bodes well for Vancouver.

"In the summer [Games] ... we don't go in thinking, 'Well, I hope we're in the top three," says Bob Condron, a spokesman for the US Olympic Committee. Now, he says, the winter Olympic sports have acquired that same kind of attitude: "We're going to win this."

For competition, the US will have traditional powerhouses like Germany and Russia, but also host Canada, which has won nearly a third of its all-time medals in the last two Games alone.

In many sports, these recent successes are the product of a decade or more of steady development. For example, US Nordic combined began cracking the top 15 internationally in the 1990s and has gradually improved. This year, Bill Demong won five international events, including the prestigious King's Cup in Norway, which hasn't been won by an American since 1968.

Younger athletes know that when they compete against Demong or 2009 World Champion Todd Lodwick in training, they "have a standard that's essentially a gold standard," says Head Coach Dave Jarrett.

Luge, too, has been steadily improving since landing a sponsor in 1985, winning its first two Olympic medals in 1998. Then Hamlin won Worlds this year, and teammates took bronze in the men's doubles.

"Having a World champion and a World Championship bronze medal certainly bodes well, but obviously we have a lot of work to do between now and [Vancouver]," says Gordy Sheer of USA Luge.

Promising talent + money = medals

As US winter sports have improved, they've gotten more money from the USOC, says Mr. Condron. Lugers test their equipment in a wind tunnel at the USOC Training Center in San Diego. US skiing, led by CEO Bill Marolt, has been helped by improved fundraising. He came back from a stint as athletic director at the University of Colorado in Boulder "with the college football rah-rah-rah and … really pumped it," says Hank McKee of Ski Racing magazine.

That has significantly increased support for cross-country skiers like Randall and teammate Kris Freeman, who missed a bronze at Worlds by less than two seconds in the 15 km race.

"We believe strongly we're on the right track that we know how to develop that talent," says Nordic Director John Farra. "We just need a bigger pool of that kind of talent. Those are the kind of things we're going to build over the next 10 years so that we have 10 Freemans."

But with some athletes, there simply will never be 10 of them. Like Vonn. "She is once-in-a-lifetime," says Mr. McKee of Ski Racing. "She works her tail off – that's the secret."

With 21 career wins, she's only six shy of Phil Mahre's American record; the international record is 86. And with at least six more years of prime competition form left, she is already the seventh most successful downhiller of all time. [Editor's note: The original version misstated the international record for career wins. Ingemar Stenmark won 86 World Cup victories; the women's record is 62.]

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