CALGARY, FEB. 11 -- Miroslav Zajonc, the Annapolis luger who shattered his foot in a training crash five weeks ago, is back on track for the Olympics, and he has the Eastern bloc competition worried.
"I think the Russians and some of their allies are trying to get his foot cast banned because it's more aerodynamic," said Zajonc's doubles partner, Tim Nardiello.
"They even had a luge federation doctor check to make sure he really had an injury," said Nardiello, adding that the red fiberglass cast Zajonc wears is anything but an advantage. "But if they think it is, that's good," he added, chuckling.
Luge rules require that competitors wear only soft booties under their slick, rubberized space suits. But Nardiello says he expects the federation to accept Zajonc's hard cast, since it's the only thing keeping his foot from coming apart.
Zajonc was on his last practice run at Lake Placid five weeks ago when his sled ran up the track wall on the final turn and smashed into a wooden barricade at about 60 mph. He cut a huge gash in the foot and split and shattered the main arch bone so badly he expects to be limping for months -- "maybe forever," he said today.
But Zajonc, who had trained for the Olympics for more than a decade, refused to give up.
While his teammates flew to Europe, he and his doctors worked on a special cast that holds his damaged foot in a downturned, aerodynamic position. During the run, his feet stick out over the leading edge of the sled and he steers with his calves. Zajonc said he hasn't done any further damage to his foot, "and I don't expect to."
He was training in singles on the luge run here today, but he won't compete in singles, where athletes push off with their feet at the start. In doubles, Nardiello does the pushing and Zajonc lies in front.
So far, they have not made a doubles test run since the crash because doubles practice doesn't begin until next week. But Nardiello and Zajonc are practicing on a rug in the Athletes' Village, where they lie on their sled and imagine the course, steering through its twists and turns silently, by memory, sometimes even timing the imaginary runs.
Zajonc said his biggest problem is psychological, trying not to think of himself as hurt, so that he will hold nothing back. The Calgary run is fairly safe, he said, compared with Lake Placid and some of the hair-raising European tracks he's competed on, so there's less incentive to hold back.
The cast is ankle-high, of light foam and 3M fiberglass, and is cut off every afternoon after practice so the wound can be cleaned. A new cast is fashioned each night, which he sleeps in.
Zajonc said the cast is bulkier than he'd like and affects his steering slightly because it comes just high enough on the calf to touch the steering mechanism.
If it all sounds like a perilous distraction to a man on the eve of his crowning moment in sports, Zajonc said it has its benefits. "It keeps my mind off other things I shouldn't be worrying about, like being nervous with no reason."
Zajonc began pointing for the Olympics at age 11 in his native Czechoslovakia, but didn't make the 1980 team, then was ineligible to compete for the United States in 1984 after defecting. He won the world singles championship competing for Canada in 1983, then switched to the U.S. team when his eligibility came through.
This is his last shot at world competition, Zajonc said, and the accident couldn't have come at a worse time.
"But he's tougher than nails," said sled-mate Nardiello. "He's got a big heart.
"There's two things in this sport -- talent and desire," Nardiello said. "I think we've got enough of both."