As he watched the Nagano Olympics on television from his home in
Boise, Idaho, four years ago, Werner Hoeger, professor of
kinesiology and pursuer of perpetual youth, was unaware of the
icy turns his life was about to take, clueless as to the
downward slides his future held. There, before his eyes, was an
athlete carrying the flag of Venezuela in the closing ceremonies
of the Winter Olympics. "Venezuela is not a winter sports
country," said Hoeger of his native country. "Who was this
athlete, and how many like her could be practicing winter
sports?" As Hoeger's thoughts turned to snow, his mind started
getting flaky. "I started getting crazy ideas about the Olympics
in about five seconds," he recalls. This month Hoeger, 48, and
his 17-year-old son, Chris, the oldest and youngest male
competitors in Olympic luge, are among hundreds of gloriously
flawed also-rans whose names are destined for the lower reaches
of the agate type. Yet their dedication defines the Games as
compellingly as do the brilliant performances of elite athletes.
This is an article from the Feb. 10, 2002 issue
Hoeger's crazy ideas were born of missed opportunities. He was
the most decorated gymnast in Venezuela's history, the national
all-around champion from 1970 through 1975, a span during which
he won 34 of the 36 individual event titles as well. He might
have fulfilled his dream to be an Olympian, too, but for a twist
of fate in 1970. Competing at the South American regional
championships in Maracaibo, Venezuela, Hoeger so impressed LaVon
Johnson, the head gymnastics coach at Brigham Young, that he
offered Hoeger a scholarship. Hoeger accepted but arrived in
Provo a 16-year-old who could speak no English. "The one word I
remember understanding in the first day of class was
basketball," he says. Hoeger had grown up in the city of Merida,
one of five brothers born to an Austrian mother and a German
father, both of whom remarried and had children with other
spouses. In all he was one of 13 siblings from three marriages.
Hoeger grew up speaking Spanish in school and German at home.
"In Venezuela we were always treated like foreigners," he says.
"We were still German to them, with greenish-blue eyes and blond
With the aid of German and Spanish tutors Hoeger soon became
fluent in English, earned a master's degree by age 20 and a
doctorate by 24. Though he was good enough to have qualified for
both the 1972 Munich and '76 Montreal Olympics as an individual,
he never got the chance because the Venezuelan squad wasn't good
enough to get to the Games as a team. "They never took any
gymnasts to those Games," Hoeger said. "I trained in the States,
which was sort of rebellious. I can't lie: It was heartbreaking.
I always had a lump in my stomach when I thought of the
In 1977 Hoeger, having given up his Olympic dream, married
Sharon Barthule, a gymnast at BYU with whom he has gone on to
have five children, and moved back home to become athletic
director at the University of the Andes in Merida. Frustrated
with the bureaucracy in Venezuela, however, he returned to the
States four years later and went to work as a corporate fitness
counselor in suburban Chicago. In '86 he accepted a job at Boise
State. Now the director of the Human Performance Laboratory
there, he has written six books on fitness that are used by 400
universities worldwide. With Sharon as co-author on four of his
books, Werner has preached the ethic of exercise, healthy eating
and stress-reducing activities, which never included flying down
Then came the corner-of-his-eye flag sighting that changed his
life. "I had to get on the Internet to find out who the athlete
was," he says. "It was a frantic search." The woman, he
discovered, was Iginia Boccalandro, Venezuela's first Winter
Olympian. Her sport was luge, as indigenous to Caracas as cactus
is to Anchorage, and Hoeger had more of a connection to her than
he realized. Once he learned her name, Hoeger contacted the
newly appointed president of Venezuela's winter sports
federation, Iginia's twin sister, Maria, a former gymnast who
once competed with and idolized Hoeger. "He was our big star,
our chance for the Olympics," Maria recalls. "I was excited to
hear from him." She explained that when she and her sister were
seven, their family had moved to Boston, where their father was
studying at MIT. Their mother saw Gregory Peck skiing in
Spellbound and insisted the girls learn the sport. Iginia, who
had competed in cross-country skiing in the early 1990s before
switching to luge, finally made it to the Olympics at age 37.
What's more, she lived in Utah, not far from the Hoegers.
"I want to get my children involved in luge," Hoeger explained
to Iginia, secretly harboring his own Walter Mitty fantasy. When
the Boccalandros suggested that he try it too, in August 1998
Werner happily joined sons Chris, 13, and Jonathan, 16, and
daughter Julianne, 11, at a street luge clinic near his home.
Former Olympian Jon Owen, a coach who ran the clinic, saw that
the family had an uncanny knack for steering sleds around pylons
placed on the course's winding roads. On Owen's recommendation,
three months later Werner and Chris took to the ice in Calgary,
where the International Luge Federation (FIL) had arranged ice
time for athletes from countries without an established history
in the sport. There they took their first runs a third of the
way up the course and gradually moved back their starting
points, each time negotiating more turns and increasing their
speed. Werner was a Ping-Pong ball on one of his first runs from
the top. "The coaches told me to steer outside the curve," he
says. "I misunderstood, steered inside the curve and drove into
a wall. I don't remember it because I suffered some memory loss,
but they tell me I bounced around, flipped twice and took a long
time to come to a stop." The spill gave Hoeger a broken ankle
and a concussion and whetted his appetite for more. "I was
hooked," he says. "Does that seem wacky?"
Hoeger doesn't exactly exude wackiness. He feels his decision to
join the Mormon Church 20 years ago has shaped his personality:
reserved, polite, analytical. He realized that his first of what
he estimates have been 10 crashes reinforced suspicions of some
sliders that he was not only upside down but also in over his
head. "Most people your age are staying home," Eugene Radu, a
Romanian slider, told him, "making sure they don't die."
Instead, Hoeger began working to get better. "The thing is, I
could slowly feel myself learning how to make corrections,
steering harder, then softer, not overcompensating," he says.
"At first it was like putting a pickup truck in reverse and
going 50 miles an hour. By the time I knew where to go, I was
past it. When you slide, you really don't feel the speed like
you feel it on the side of the track. On the side I'm thinking,
You're crazy. On the track I'm thinking, This is making sense."
That was about 500 rides ago, before the sabbatical Werner took
from work last year, before the days Chris began e-mailing his
assignments in to teachers from Internet shops in quaint
Tyrolean villages, before prequalification runs for World Cups
and race finishes in the 50s and long before Sharon's assent
went from tacit blessing to fervent support. "As long as Chris
does his homework," she says three times in the course of a
morning--and we're talking five hours a night for a senior
course load of advanced placement chemistry, advanced placement
history, honors English, honors precalculus, German 5-6 and a
debate-team elective. He has earned mostly A's as a student at
Centennial High in Boise. "When I first started missing school,
people there thought of me as that crazy luge kid," he says.
"Now they probably think it's cooler than I do. I don't want to
Though Chris has slowly emerged as the more talented of the two
sliders, he remembers thinking of luge, before getting on a
sled, as "the psycho sport you only saw during the Olympics."
Though he only earned his driver's license in January, Chris was
breaking the speed limit as a 13-year-old. "The fun thing is,
he'll go 80 miles an hour on the track and never get a speeding
ticket," says Werner.
Although they are wearing the yellow, blue and red of Venezuela
in Salt Lake City, the Hoegers have not been back to the country
for 14 years. Werner worries about the escalating crime rate
back home in Merida, where his brother Peter had his car taken
at gunpoint last year. Chris, who was born in Texas, speaks
halting Spanish and has only vague recollections of an early
birthday party during his first trip to Venezuela. The Hoegers
plan to return this year, mindful of a need for closer ties to
the country they are representing at the Olympics. Both sliders
say they've been welcomed warmly by their more accomplished
contemporaries. Austria's Markus Prock, a two-time Olympic
silver medalist who will compete at his sixth Games in Salt Lake
City, recalls the holes in the knees and elbows of Werner's
sliding attire as a road map of where he had scraped the track.
"At first he was making maybe too close a relationship with the
wall," Prock says, "but it is not so easy to start the sport
when you are more than 10. He is soon 50. It's incredible. Big
nations have coaches, secretaries. They do everything
Neither Werner nor Chris receives money from the Venezuelan
Olympic Committee. The FIL sometimes arranges housing for them
overseas and provides them each with 50 sliding vouchers a year
to use on accredited luge tracks. Olympians-to-be or not, the
Hoegers, who took more than 150 runs apiece in 2001, still had
to fork over the $18 for each additional run on their home track
in Park City and comparable fees overseas. Werner is on half-pay
while on leave from his $58,000-a-year job. Against those odds
they achieved their Olympic qualifying standards by competing in
three World Cup races in the past year. Werner's best finish was
37th in Calgary three years ago; Chris's best was a 40th in
Calgary this season. "We're putting everything we can into being
better at something that is a dream," Werner says. "The Olympics
won't make us richer." No, but the Olympics will be richer for
These not-so-magnificent seven competitors represent some of the
most unlikely corners of the globe
ANNE ABERNATHY, U.S. Virgin Islands, Luge
Known as Grandma Luge, the Florida native will be making her
fifth appearance in the Games, at age 49.
SHIVA KESHAVAN, India, Luge
Placed 28th in Nagano as a 16-year-old; this son of an Italian
mother is enrolled at the University of Florence.
PHILIP BOIT, Kenya, Cross-country skiing
In Nagano the 30-year-old Nike-sponsored Boit (left) became the
first Kenyan to compete in the Winter Games when he finished
92nd and last in the 10-kilometer classical event.
LIZ COUCH, New Zealand, Skeleton
The physical education teacher and former sprinter took up
skeleton in 1999 after replying to a want ad asking for "fit
young women with attitude." She trains on old metal sleds.
LAURENCE THOMS, Fiji, Alpine skiing
Thoms, 21, qualified for the national team in 1999 after having
been in training for only two months.
GREGORY SUN, Trinidad and Tobago, Bobsled
The 37-year-old University of Idaho Ph.D. candidate (physical
education), competing in his third consecutive Winter Games, was
introduced to the sport by Chris Stokes, one of the original
Jamaican bobsledders and a former Idaho track athlete.
ISAAC MENYOLI, Cameroon, Cross-country skiing
The 29-year-old Milwaukee architect is her country's first
Winter Olympian; skis to raise AIDS awareness because the
disease afflicted her hometown of Buea.
a concussion, but, he says, "I was hooked."
Hoegers] do everything themselves. It's incredible."