The white viper that is the Lake Placid, N.Y. Olympic luge run lies coiled on the north slope of Mount Van Hoevenberg, its 1,000 meters of glare ice dusted with fluffy snow. At the top of the course—the 14-turn track is one of the fastest and most difficult in the world—Miroslav Zajonc (pronounced Zy-ons), his lithe body squeezed into a skintight blue racing suit, his bony features distorted by a plastic face shield, sits on a four-foot sled, awaiting the bilingual P.A. announcement that will send him hurtling down the mountain. "Track clear for Zajonc of the United States. Bahn frei for Zajonc."
He grips the steel starting bars, rocks back and forth to gain momentum for what is the strongest start in luge, then pulls forward viciously. Four paddle strokes with his hands, spike-tipped gloves crunching into the ice, dig up even more speed. This is no slide down Schoolyard Hill on the old Flexible Flyer. In a matter of seconds, Zajonc is flashing down the 100-meter straightaway, around Turn 1 and then boring into the wicked right angle of Turn 2, accelerating through the banking at 45 mph; he'll soon hit 70. G-force snaps Zajonc's head back and pins his body to his sled. For a moment he is a blue streak plastered halfway up the 17-foot wall.
Miro, Miro. On the wall,
Who's the fastest of them all?
"Today, I am fastest," Zajonc says at the end of that mid-February training run, and indeed his time of 43.321 seconds for the 1,000-meter course has beaten the other 90 lugers from 19 countries, including '84 Olympic gold medalist and '80 silver medalist Paul Hildgartner of Italy, plus three other '84 Olympic medalists. They were practicing for the World Cup meet, and three days later Zajonc put the pedal on the medal, taking third place with a combined three-run time of 2:09.211, to win the United States' first medal ever in a senior luge competition. (Norbert Huber of Italy was first with 2:08.658; East Germany's Michael Walter was second with 2:09.003.)
"He's going to be a killer at the Calgary Olympics," says ex-U.S. Olympic team coach Svein Romstad of the 25-year-old Zajonc, who must be considered a serious medal threat in a sport that in the U.S. has been little more than an athletic hors d'oeuvre. But when the Czechoslovakian-born Zajonc goes for the heavy medal at the '88 Olympics, he will be raising the stature of this cult sport for Americans while completing a personal journey that has been more circuitous and, at times, more dangerous and gut-twisting than the luge courses he runs.
While on vacation in August 1981, Zajonc got up from breakfast in a Vienna hotel and headed for a police station. "I am thinking of defecting for a long time. That morning I decide," he says. "I have $100, my suitcase and a dictionary. I go to the police and read from the dictionary, 'I want asylum.' "
You got it, Miro, and with it, freedom to hustle and go hungry. After arriving in the U.S. $30 in debt "to man I met at Austrian refugee camp," Zajonc went to Lake Placid, training site for the national luge team. As the 1979 Czechoslovakian junior champion, Zajonc hoped the U.S. team would open its heart, roster and wallet to him. Well, sometimes you win, sometimes you luge. Miro lost. The U.S. Luge Association (USLA) would not accept an athlete who could not be a citizen by 1984 and would therefore be ineligible for the Sarajevo Olympics.
In Lake Placid, Zajonc, an auto mechanic back home, did some car repairs for Martin and Dee Hughes of Annapolis, Md. The Hugheses befriended Zajonc and decided to sponsor him, taking him into their home and getting him a job in the company Hughes runs, Stone Steel Corp. "We thought, 'What a shame to lose such a great athlete,' " says Dee Hughes.
When Zajonc went to Annapolis, he knew two words of English: "No problem." "Whatever we asked him to do was 'no problem,' " says Dee, who marveled at Zajonc's enormous strength. Once, she asked him to bail out their boat, using the bottom half of a bleach bottle. The 6'2", 185-pound Zajonc went to the beach, picked up the 16-foot metal craft and dumped out the water. No problem. "Miro almost lifted the Cybex machine off the floor," says the USLA's resource development director, Bob Hughes.
But it was another two years before that strength could be brought to the service of the U.S. In 1983 and '84, Zajonc luged for Canada—the Canadians were not quite so fussy about a noncitizen as the USLA—and won the '83 world championship. "But always I live at Annapolis," he says. Zajonc's lack of Canadian citizenship, however, did make him ineligible to slide for Canada at Sarajevo.
While Zajonc was still a member of the Canadian team, he got a bigger scare than a luge course ever gave him. In December 1983, when he was in Sarajevo for a World Cup meet—his first trip to a Communist country since his defection—Miro's roommate received a phone call for him from a man who would not leave his name. When Zajonc asked about it at the desk, he was told there had been no calls, though all messages had to go through the switchboard. "I was afraid, but I was not sure what I was afraid of," he says. He did not stay to find out. That night, he drove to Austria and then returned to the U.S. In January '85, Zajonc, who will become a U.S. citizen in time for the '88 Olympics, finally joined the American team and won both the 1985 national singles and doubles championships.
Last summer in Annapolis, Zajonc received another phone call. The caller was Iveta Klabnikova, a woman he had known back in his hometown of Novy Smokovec. Klabnikova had been allowed out of Czechoslovakia to visit an aunt in Pittsburgh. Zajonc invited her to Annapolis. "When I leave Czechoslovakia, I am not planning to defect. But also, I am not planning to fall in love," she says. Miro and Iveta were married on Christmas Eve in Lake Placid. The Zajoncs now live in a mobile home there, and for entertainment they go to the movies. Among their favorites are Rocky IV and White Nights. Lately the Zajoncs have been able to put aside a few extra dollars for movie tickets, thanks to Iveta's job as a ski instructor at nearby Whiteface Mountain. She says the job is good because it takes her mind off her homesickness for her family in Czechoslovakia. "Sometimes still I cry," she says. But she laughs at her husband. "These lugers, they are crazy," she says. "They go so fast I cannot even make photograph."
On the track Zajonc goes so fast he has literally outrun his coaches. Ron Rossi, executive director of the USLA, and U.S. team coach for the World Cup, can do little more than stand in awe of Zajonc. After a recent practice run at Lake Placid, Rossi's voice crackled over a radio to Zajonc: "Miro, if anybody wanted to know what perfection in this sport looks like, all they had to do was watch that."
"Thank you," said Zajonc, who put down the radio, smiled and observed, "Coaches. They are all alike."
So who coaches you, Miro?
"The video," he says.
But not for long. "We're looking for a world-class coach. A Scotty Bowman. A Sparky Anderson. Not just for Miro, but for the whole team," says Bob Hughes.
Meanwhile, Zajonc is something of a coach without portfolio. "They can watch me and they learn," he says of his teammates. That is particularly true of Frank Masley (the U.S. flag bearer at Sarajevo), whose times are getting close to Zajonc's. "But I don't have Miro's smoothness," says Masley, who sometimes wrestles his sled around the track like a man tossing in bed. Zajonc steers with barely perceptible movements of his legs and shoulders.
"He can put the sled to within six inches of any given line," says ex-Canada coach Doug Hansen.
"I don't say he'll put the world at our door, but if he wins in Calgary he can take this sport further than it's ever been in this country," says Bob Hughes.
And what does Zajonc say about all this? "I want only to go fast."