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CAN DUNCAN DO IT?

Jan. 27, 1992
Jan. 27, 1992

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Jan. 27, 1992

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CAN DUNCAN DO IT?

U.S. LUGER DUNCAN KENNEDY IS ON TRACK FOR A MEDAL

Okay, so DuncanKennedy is not the Teenage Mutant Ninja luger he once was. So the man known asSpeed, erstwhile rebel of the Adirondacks, has dropped the punk 'do, learned toschmooze with the sponsors and has actually become professional in his approachto luging. So this new attitude has helped propel the 24-year-old Kennedy—whotwo years ago was so burned out that he gave up sliding for a blessedly briefgo at snowboard racing—to the top of the 1991-92 World Cup standings, havingsnared two golds, two silvers and a bronze in his first five starts.

This is an article from the Jan. 27, 1992 issue Original Layout

That's right, anAmerican luger who can race with the lions of the sport, which these days meansAustria's Markus Prock and Germany's Georg Hackl. A Yank who's a bona fidefavorite to medal at Albertville, having finished ahead of 1988 Olympic goldmedalist Jens Muller of Germany every time he has faced him this season. Pleasebury the Some Win, Some Luge jokes this Olympiad. Kennedy is a U.S. threatwho's for real.

Still, restassured that Mr. Speed has not totally reformed into Mr. Serious. And thankgod, or Kennedy could never be the luger he is. Serious people are simply notcapable of sliding feetfirst, faceup, on a four-foot sled of fiberglass andsteel, 75-plus miles per hour down an icy track—while totally relaxed. Turnsout, that's the secret to going fast. You lie there like a Valium-soaked ragdoll while rocketing down the course, steering by a flick of the shoulder hereand a twitch of the foot there. "Gelling out," the lugers call it. Andno one is better at gelling out than Kennedy.

You can recognizehim by the self-designed luge tattoo on his left shoulder and the Bart Simpsonsticker on his sled. For beneath those gold medal aspirations, here slides akid for the pure fun of it, a surfing and skateboarding junkie so addicted toadrenaline rushes that a month before leaving for Albertville he blistered hisheel by snowboarding all day.

"I put as biga value on my free time as on my training time," says Kennedy, who hassummered in Santa Cruz, Calif., for the past three years so he can get down tohis next love—surfing. "Obviously it would suck to get hurt and miss theOlympics. But if I get up and want to go snowboarding, I'm going to do it. I'vealways tried to keep luge from running my life."

Kennedy's is anattitude that is the opposite of the slider's unofficial maxim: Luge is mylife. Luge is not Kennedy's life. Not anymore. Luge was his life. Luge,strangely, may have had a hand in saving his life. But it is no longer hisobsession. "To get to the top five in the world is to reach anotherlevel," says Frank Masley, a former luger and three-time Olympian."It's a level above the obsession level. It takes a conscious effort on adaily basis to figure out how to gain that extra five hundredths of a secondthat separates each place in luge."

"When you getto a certain point," says Kennedy, "90 percent of going faster ismental. At the risk of sounding like a Santa Cruz surfing freak, it's almostspiritual."

Are you startingto see it now? How luge is an elixir, fulfilling S the mental, physical and,yes, spiritual needs of otherwise normal red-blooded American boys and girls?Kennedy was drawn I to the sport as if he had been bred to it, which heassuredly was not. Born in Burlingame, Calif., Kennedy was 11 when his mother,Betsy, and three older brothers moved to Lake Placid in 1979. (His parents wereamicably divorced in 1972. Ted Kennedy, Duncan's father, is an architect wholives in Lexington, Ky.)

During the 1980Winter Games, Duncan worked as a gofer for ABC-TV. He had never been on a luge,but an ABC analyst who intended to use one as a prop, asked if he could storehis sled in the Kennedys' home. Betsy Kennedy, who was working at the LakePlacid Hilton, remembers coming home each day to find Duncan lying on the sled"in the assumed luge position," watching the Games on TV. Duncan, then12, had heard that an introductory program for luge would be held after theOlympics. He asked his mother if he could try it. "I said yes because Iknew he wouldn't like it," says Betsy. "He hated rollercoasters."

So Kennedy tookhis first luge run the day after the closing ceremonies of the 1980 Games. BobHughes, now director of marketing for the U.S. Luge Association, remembersputting him on the sled. "To be honest, I don't remember Duncan as much asI do his mother," says Hughes. "She was right there asking if I wassure I knew what I was doing. Betsy is the ultimate Little League Mom forluge."

"She's thebiggest luge fan on the planet," says Duncan. "And she was shocked whenI liked it. At first I was scared to death of the speed. But I loved the turnsand the curves."

Thus beganKennedy's six-year obsessive stage, in which, says Betsy, "he lived, ateand breathed luge." To get used to the speed, Duncan trained over thesummer on a sled with wheels. "In the morning there'd be hundreds of littlefrogs on the track," Kennedy remembers. "You'd go zipping down, and atthe end of the run your back would be covered with frog guts. It made the trackkind of slippery. More like ice. Those were the days."

Ah, the simplejoys of childhood. Kennedy bought a used racing sled with the money he hadearned at ABC, and in the winter, he and Masley, who spent winters at LakePlacid, built natural luge tracks in Kennedy's backyard and alongside MirrorLake. "You learn all the finer points of the sport at a slow speed,"Masley says. "That's why it's so important to start young. Duncan and Iboth had fun sliding. That's what motivated us. Not glory."

When Duncan was13, he won the first of his three national junior championships for competitors18 and under. The next summer, in August 1981, Duncan was stricken with amysterious partial paralysis. He lost movement in one of his eyes and beganseeing double, so he had to wear an eye patch. His hearing was impaired, and hehad difficulty walking. One side of his face swelled up.

A cat scanrevealed a lesion in his brain stem, the location of which rendered itinoperable. Duncan underwent a series of tests—spinal tap, angiogram, theworks. By a process of elimination, his doctors determined the lesion was mostlikely a brain tumor and told Betsy, if that were the case, her 13-year-old sonhad only a year or two to live. Chemotherapy and radiation treatments, sadly,were impossible.

Sliding, ofcourse, was out. But Duncan remained upbeat and told his mother that if he hadto wear an eye patch for the rest of his life, so be it. He could be the bottomman in a luge doubles team because the bottom man didn't have to see. "Theother thing he said that I'll never forget was, 'If the doctors won't let meluge at all, I'll just be the best luge coach the U.S. has ever had,' "Betsy recalls. "Years later he told me, 'Oh, Mom, I knew I wasn't going todie. I knew I was going to luge again.' It was the luge that kept him going. Hejust believed in his heart that the doctors were wrong."

Forbidden toslide, Duncan did the next best thing. He and his mother went to Europe, wherethey visited three of the world's most famous luge tracks, Igls in Austria, andKönigssee and Winterberg in Germany. "I watched and learned the tracks andtold myself that someday I was going to come back here and remember thoselines," says Kennedy, who won a silver medal this season at Königssee and abronze at Igls. "I still think that was one of my most productive tripsever."

By December 1981,seemingly miraculously, Duncan's limp was disappearing, and movement hadreturned to his eye. Another CAT scan revealed the lesion in his brain stem wasgone—doctors now believe it was an abnormal vascular formation of blood cellsthat simply dissolved and moved to another part of his body. Duncan was giventhe O.K. to start sliding again, and that winter he was the top U.S. finisherin the junior world championships, placing 19th.

It wasn't untilhe was 18 that Kennedy discovered there was more to life than luge. Did a girlopen his eyes? His first car? Keats's Ode on a Grecian Urn? Nah. Skateboarding."For about six years, all I did was slide," Kennedy says. "When Ifound skateboarding, I had a second childhood."

Thus began the"I've Gotta Be Me" era. First he mastered skateboarding. Then surfing.Then snowboarding. All the while Kennedy was being cited as a potential '88medalist in luge. "I'm known for not taking many training runs," headmits. "You're asking for injury or nonproductive runs if you slide whenyou don't feel like sliding. Sometimes that got on people's nerves."

What really goton U.S. luge officials' nerves was Kennedy's stinging criticism of the programbefore and during the '88 Calgary Games. First, after he suffered a 12-stitchgash in his hand during an Olympic trial race on the Lake Placid track,courtesy of an exposed nail, he had the audacity to mention to the press howdangerous the track was. Then, at Calgary, he offended one of luge's majorsponsors, 3M, after luge officials—in a p.r. ploy—applied aerodynamic riblettape to the bottoms of the U.S. sleds on the eve of the Games without allowingthe sliders to test the tape first. "Duncan's always been vocal," saysMasley, who finished 12th at Calgary, two places ahead of Kennedy. "Iagreed with him, but I was older and didn't let it upset me. But from theathletes' perspective, he was definitely not out of line."

Hisbad-boy-of-luge-image firmly established, total burnout occurred in the midstof the 1989-90 season, when Kennedy, who was still America's best, quit theteam and spent the rest of the winter entering snowboarding races. "Iwasn't having fun," he says. "That's the bottom line. I didn't want tolook at a sled, a track or a coach. I had no intention of coming back to thesport."

"That yearoff was tough for him," says his mother. "He was not treated terriblywell. People made him feel he was letting others down by leaving. He was calledun-American. He'd always said luge was his life, but I trusted his instincts.Like they say, You can lead a horse to water...."

By all accounts,that break was the turning point in Kennedy's development. During his time awayfrom the sport, he discovered that he missed luge, missed the heart-stoppingrush of hurtling down a track. He decided to come back after watching U.S.downhiller AJ Kitt, a former schoolmate, finish fourth in a World Cup skiingevent. "I thought, Unbelievable," Kennedy says. "That showed me ifyou put in your time and had the talent, you'd get your reward. It got methinking I had some unfinished business to attend to."

Kennedy returnedto luge for the 1990-91 season with a renewed sense of purpose. "The longeryou are in the sport, the smaller the steps of improvement," says WolfgangSchaedler, a former Olympian from Liechtensein who has coached the U.S. teamsince 1986. "It gets harder and harder the further you come. Duncan cameback with more professional attitude, a new set of goals. He came back with aplan."

Kennedy wasconsistently finishing in the top 10 last season, but his breakthrough racecame in February '91 at the NYNEX Invitational in Lake Placid. All the topsliders were there—Prock, Hackl, Müller. Kennedy not only won the race, but healso broke the track record. "That showed him he could beat the wholefield," says Schaedler. "The first win is the hardest. Then you can doit over and over."

Kennedy closedout the 1990-91 season with a fourth-place finish at Albertville, on the trackwhere the Olympic races will be held. Buoyed by his successes, Kennedy then hadhis best summer of training ever—lifting weights, surfing (paddling a surfboarduses the same muscles as are used in the luge start) and riding his mountainbike through the Santa Cruz foothills. He gained 15 pounds of muscle, raisinghis weight from 158 to 173.

Kennedy picked upthis season where he had left off, winning silver medals in the first two WorldCup races in November in Germany. He finished second to Prock in Altenberg,breaking the track record on his first run, then placed second to Hackl atKönigssee, which is Hackl's home course. The third World Cup event was held inSigulda, Latvia, where Kennedy made history by becoming the first U.S. male towin a luge gold medal. "He could have won that race on a FlexibleFlyer," says assistant coach Tim Nardiello. "He was thatconfident."

"Before thisyear I didn't have the mental ability to finish off a race," Kennedy says."The Europeans were used to me blowing it on the second run. I neverunderstood how I went fast. This year I do. You've got to be mentallyaggressive. Don't worry about beating other people; beat the track. The year Ispent snowboarding played a big role in my winning this year. I had a helluvalot of fun at those competitions because I took in the atmosphere at everyrace. I noticed things—what the sky looked like, what the weather was like—andI've transferred that attitude to luge. Then I told myself, If it's that muchfun just being here, think how much more fun it would be to win. Going into theOlympics, I'm not thinking, Wouldn't it be neat to win a medal? I can medal forsure. It's just a question of which one."

PHOTONANCIE BATTAGLIAPHOTOMARK GAMBALUGE IS NO LONGER KENNEDY'S SOLE OBSESSION; HE'S ALSO ADDICTED TO SNOWBOARDING AND SURFING.PHOTOMARK GAMBADESPITE HIS LUGE TATTOO, KENNEDY CLAIMS 90% OF GOING FASTER IS, LIKE SPIRITUAL.PHOTOBILL EPPRIDGEKENNEDY DIDN'T MEDAL IN '88, BUT HE NOW KNOWNS HOW TO GEL OUT.THREE PHOTOSTWO ILLUSTRATIONS