The sun is a vague sort of thing in Fairbanks, Alaska, in October. Iginia Boccalandro remembers it as a blotch too near the horizon, even in the middle of the day.
Things were kind of dismal anyway that October in Fairbanks. It was 1993 and Boccalandro was training for the Olympics, as a member of the Venezuelan Nordic ski team. Actually she was the Venezuelan Nordic ski team.Her country isn't known for its winter sports, of course, owing largely to the fact that it's practically on the equator. She was hoping to be the first person, ever, to represent Venezuela in the winter Olympics.
Other cross-country ski teams, from countries full of snow, were housed in nice condos that fall at the Fairbanks preseason training center. But Boccalandro had to make do with a room in a house that was still under construction. It was a lonely and discouraging time.
So every evening she would buy a ticket and some popcorn and settle in at a Fairbanks movie theater to watch "Cool Runnings." She saw it for 10 nights straight.
The movie is the bumbling yet touching story of the first-ever, ragtag Jamaican bobsled team's triumph at the 1988 Olympics in Calgary. They didn't win a medal, but the crowd loved them. And they sold a lot of T-shirts.
It was "Cool Runnings," says Boccalandro, that got her through the weeks of training. Even though the movie was about bobsledders and her sport was skiing, the victory of underdogs from a tropical country inspired her.
When she returned to Alaska in January of '94, however, for the Olympic trials, she didn't make the cut. She was a good skier but not good enough: Even if you're representing a country that has only one team member, you still have to meet stringent qualifying times.
Boccalandro had to face the fact that her body type - solid, stocky - wasn't ideal for endurance skiing, and besides, her knees were shot from volleyball and downhill skiing injuries.
Discouraged and depressed, she returned home to Utah. Pretty soon her family converged from various parts of the globe to cheer her up during the Olympics. One night Boccalandro's mom was downstairs watching the Games on TV.
"Come look, Iginia," her mom called out. "I think I've found your sport. There's a woman who looks like you." There on the TV was a solid, stocky woman. Her sport was luge.
A few days later, when her Nordic coach called to check in with her, Boccalandro asked him about the sport. "Oh, luge is perfect for you," he said. Not only was she built right, he said, but she had the perfect disposition - relaxed, laid back.
So Boccalandro hooked up with John Owens, director of the Wasatch Luge Club. Last fall she began training at the Winter Sports Park at Bear Hollow. Although the luge track isn't finished yet, "sliders" practice there on the snow.
If she keeps this up, she hopes, she'll be ready for the World Cup circuit by 1998, and the Olympics in Salt Lake City by 2002. She'll be 41 then.
This spring she has also trained at deserted ski resorts along the Wasatch Front, where she practices alone, on conditions that are often far from ideal. In the spring the snow is lumpy and full of "sun pockets," which means that the metal bar on the sled often digs into her back as she bumps down the hill.
Trudging uphill, carrying her 30-pound practice sled on her back one Sunday recently at Solitude, Boccalandro explained what it takes to be good at a sport that appears, to the lay person, to be mostly a matter of gravity and spandex.
Bulk is important, she says, because the greater the mass, the greater the potential speed. But the mass has to be muscle, not fat: you need a strong neck, abdomen, back and legs to steer a luge sled.
And it takes coordination. You have to be able to negotiate curves at 70 miles per hour without sliding or creating friction that could slow you down. And all this is done, of course, while you're lying on your back on a sled that, as Dave Barry says, is "about the size of a cafeteria tray."
Boccalandro is big, muscular and athletic. For years she was on the Venezuelan national volley ball team.
"I love the luge because it makes me feel like a kid," she says, and in fact, watching her take off down the slope feet first, the whole thing looks less like a sport and more like a good time.
It was when she was 7 - just after her family had moved from Venezuela to Massachusetts so that her dad could study at MIT - that little Iginia first discovered the heady combination of ice and speed.
The ringleader of her siblings and neighbors, Iginia figured out that if she poured water on her family's steep driveway, it could turn into a breakneck sled track. Later, after her mother fell on the track, it was decided that Iginia could pour water only on the middle of the driveway.
She moved back to Venezuela when she was 12, then back to the United States to finish college. She has lived in Utah since 1992 and makes her living doing a form of deep tissue massage known as Structural Integration, or Rolfing.
She doesn't have enough money to train this summer on the wheel-sled tracks at Lake Placid or Calgary. But she'll continue with her Bulgarian strength exercises and will do her "visualizations."
"I already have the Bear Hollow course that's been in the blueprints and I look at it and I visualize it." She imagines her body moving just so, her left shoulder dropping down, her right leg pushing the metal bar.
"You're actually training the neural pathways to be able to respond to the subtle movements of your body," she says.
So far she hasn't gone faster than about 35 mph because she has only done her luge training on snow. She'll probably have to wait until next winter, when the Bear Hollow luge track is scheduled to open, to know what it feels like to travel fast on ice.
Unless she tries out this idea she had recently. "We've talked about putting my sled and me on top of the car," she says, "to simulate what 70 mph would feel like on my body."