All for One, and Luge for All
By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 13, 1998; Page C6
NAGANO, Feb. 12 Bermuda's Patrick Singleton introduced himself by name and nation, making the humble assumption that nobody had any idea who he was. Although he was wearing his nation's colors and his racing number, and he had just sped down the luge track for his final Olympic run, Singleton wasn't taking anything for granted.
He got to talking about his traveling companions. He is the only athlete at the Olympics from Bermuda, yet he is a member of one of the largest and closest-knit luge teams in the world, a team comprised of athletes representing different nations who have a stronger identity together than alone.
Singleton's teammates hail from Greece, New Zealand, Somalia, India, South Korea, Taiwan and sometimes another nation or two. While they are opponents here, competing for different nations, most of their luge lives are spent together as part of a traveling troupe, eating, training and sleeping in hostels or dormitories.
For 10 years, the Federation Internationale de Luge de Course (FIL) has assembled these athletes from far-flung locales, providing funding, transportation and a three-person coaching staff headed by Austrian Guenther Lemmerer. The idea is to bring more athletes into this dizzying and dangerous sport, traditionally practiced in Europe and dominated by Germans, Austrians and Italians.
Singleton's adopted multinational and multi lingual teammates pack their sleds and racing gear into a large van and proceed together around the World Cup circuit.
"We speak English that's the language we use," said Singleton, who finished 27th of 34 men's singles sliders this week. "The fact that we are all from different nations really doesn't matter. It seems like we are part of the same team. It's always strange at the track when they announce 'Bermuda' and 'Greece' and the other countries, because I don't think of us as separate.
"It's kind of weird at the Olympics, because we are all split up."
The FIL program has a $100,000 annual budget, according to FIL Secretary General Hartut Kardaetz. The athletes pay other expenses, from room and board to track fees. This year, with the Olympic Games in Japan, the luge federation created FIL Asia, a second traveling team that worked extensively on the Olympic track here.
"We provide the van, and they all travel together," Kardaetz said, speaking through an interpreter. "I fully support the idea. We need a lot of nations to be an Olympic sport."
Singleton traveled with the FIL Asia team. The other team, the original FIL team, carried sliders from Bosnia, Greece, Estonia, Lithuania, Liechtenstein, Taiwan and Venezuela.
What outsiders might be surprised to know about both teams is that the participating athletes are dead earnest about luge. They insist they are not like Michael "Eddie the Eagle" Edwards, the British plasterer-turned-ski jumper who originated the concept of the capricious Olympic participant at the 1988 Games in Calgary.
"It's all business," Singleton said. "We have to get the job done. We don't fool around in training or around the track. It's a serious thing.
"I cringe at the stereotype of the Jamaican bobsled team. . . . I don't think I'm a joke. I'm very serious about what I do."
Singleton, 23, roomed this season with Indian Shiva Keshavan, 16, who finished 28th here. Although they have vastly different backgrounds, they learned about luge in essentially the same way. Singleton was a reporter at a Bermuda television station in 1996 when he attended a local tryout held by Lemmerer, who spends his summers looking for luge talent in warm-weather countries. Singleton and other interested Bermudians slid down a dry land track on a sled with wheels.
"I went down to have a look," Singleton said. "I got involved and here I am today."
Keshavan heard about luge tryouts while attending a British school in Vashisht, India. Keshavan knows five languages Hindi, Punjabi, Malayalam, English and Italian which comes in handy with the luge group. In 1995, he, too, slid down a dry track on a wheeled sled and discovered he had a knack for the sport.
"Luge came to me really naturally," Keshavan said. "I always wanted to be an Olympic athlete."
As they became friends, the athletes cooked, shopped and saw sights together. There are occasional tensions and arguments, but everyone generally gets along. They seem to realize they have more together than they do alone. In most cases, the athletes' own nations have weak luge or winter sports federations. They lack the major corporate sponsors that the U.S. and Canadian luge teams have.
Some sliders eventually break away from the program. Springfield resident and Virgin Islands slider Anne Abernathy left the FIL team this season and hired her own coach.
Iginia Boccalandro was born in Caracas, Venezuela, but has spent much of her life in the United States, living in Boston and Salt Lake City. A physiotherapist who runs an alternative medicine clinic, Boccalandro was a national-caliber volleyball player and downhill skier in her native country before being sidelined with chronic knee problems. In 1994, still desiring to achieve her goal of competing and eventually winning a medal in the Olympics, she joined a developmental luge program sponsored by the U.S. luge association.
Boccalandro joined the FIL team not Singleton's FIL Asia group and found that German had been chosen as the common language. Boccalandro, who doesn't speak German, also was surprised by her new teammates' intensity level. The members got up early, worked out and trained all day, then recorded their progress diligently in training diaries. The final order of business each day was meticulously polishing the sleds' steels, the rails that ride on the ice.
"It's even better than being on a national team . . . where there is always going to be a little competitiveness and back stabbing" said Boccalandro, who wound up 28th among the 29 female lugers. "Those things didn't happen here. I could not care less if Estonia beats me or not."
The beauty of luge for smaller nations is that, with so few tracks in the world, it's difficult for anybody to train on them constantly. In fact, land work is the biggest part of luge training, even for the very best sliders in the world.
"It doesn't matter if you are from a winter sport country or a summer sport country," Boccalandro said. "The weather patterns don't matter because anyone who is going to sled in luge has to travel to the track."
And that's what FIL provides the means to travel to the track.
The athletes bring the rest.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post
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