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U.S. luge team set for Olympics

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They are a team now.

With the addition of Nick Sullivan, 22, Oakdale, Minn., who won a race-off over the weekend to earn a roster spot, the 10-member Olympic luge team is set.

Six singles sliders (three men and three women) and two doubles teams (all men) will represent the United States during Salt Lake's 2002 Winter Games.

For half the team it will be their first Olympics, something they've sacrificed years to gain.

"They're not signing million-dollar deals," U.S. Luge Association president Doug Bateman said. "Their lives are on hold. Their educations are on hold. There is sacrifice."

To reach this point most sliders abandoned college, jobs, family and friends.

"We've had this dream to be Olympians for a long time," doubles slider Brian Martin, 27, Palo Alto, Calif., said. "You really have to put in your time."

From July until October, sliders train in Lake Placid, N.Y. Then from October until March they travel Europe, Japan and North America on the World Cup circuit.

Then there's a brief summer when many of them try to scratch out a living, an education or a family vacation.

"I have 12 (college) credits while most of my friends are graduating this year," Sullivan lamented. Other team members have similarly put of their lives on hold most of the year.

Courtney Zablocki, 20, Highlands Ranch, Colo., spent the past two summers working at a coffee shop. Adam Height, 24, Northport, N.Y., works as a plumbing contractor during his summers. Sullivan and Tony Benshoof, 26, White Bear Lake, Minn., work construction together. Clay Ives, 29, Lake Placid, has been a summer landscaper and stone mason.

Martin and doubles partner Mark Grimmette, 30, Muskegon, Mich., have built fences for USA Luge executive director Ron Rossi. Other summers Martin drove the beer cart on a golf course, built bicycles, worked for WebTV and even became a dishwasher.

"That was the low point of my summer job career," he said.

Professional basketball, with its highfalutin demeanor, this is not.

To earn money during the season, sliders must finish well on the World Cup luge circuit. A top-five finish, for instance, can earn a cash payout from USA Luge. Or athletes can apply for grants from the U.S. Olympic Committee to use as spending money.

In large part, they manage without fame, fanfare or much money.

It's not like luge in Germany, Austria and Italy, where many sliders receive "cushy" government jobs as professional soldiers or with the forest service where they are paid year-round but rarely do much work outside the summer months, Martin said.

"Over there the luge is their football and baseball and hockey," Zablocki said.

Still, U.S. lugers have it better than some, said Ives, who has dual citizenship and will slide for Uncle Sam after three Olympic turns with Canada.

In the United States, sliders have access to free room and board at a Lake Placid training center and can luge for no cost to themselves. While they aren't making much money, they aren't having to spend much, either, while they criss-cross the globe.

In Canada payingfor hotels, food and travel adds up, Ives said.

"Usually it costs $10,000 a year to slide," he said. "It's real easy to go into debt as a Canadian slider."

The team will finish out the World Cup season with two final races in Sigulda, Latvia, and Winterberg, Germany, before arriving in Utah Jan. 29 to prepare for Games-time competition Feb. 10-15 at Utah Olympic Park.

Becky Wilczak, 21, River Forest, Ill.; Ashley Hayden, 20, Westborough, Mass.; and Chris Thorpe, 31, Marquette, Mich., make up the remainder of the team.


E-mail: bsnyder@desnews.com