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About Utah: Dream to reality: Whim eventually lands luger in Italy

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CESANA PARIOL, Italy — It was 11 years ago this June that Salt Lake City won the Olympics and the Olympics won Preston Griffall.

The date was June 16, 1995, and Preston was 11 years old when he went with his brother, Logan, and his parents, Faith and Keith, to the City-County Building grounds in downtown Salt Lake City to hear the news from Budapest whether Salt Lake City would host the 2002 Games.

When the word came that it was true, Preston and Logan whooped and hollered along with everyone else. Then, when things settled down as they were strolling the grounds, Preston's eye caught sight of a booth promoting the Olympic sliding sport of luge. His father had already taken Preston and Logan to the Winter Sports Park (as it was known then) and they had all tried the 10-meter ski jump, but the sliding track hadn't been built yet.

"I'd like to try that," Preston told his parents that night at the City and County building, and either the next day, or shortly thereafter, Faith Griffall was on the phone to the luge association, signing Preston up.

That's the same Preston, by the way, who teamed with partner Dan Joye to finish eighth Wednesday night in luge doubles in the Torino Olympics.

The pair finished nine-tenths of a second behind the winners, brothers Andreas and Wolfgang Linger of Austria, and half a second out of the medals — sizeable chunks in luge time.

They were done in by a couple of ragged turns on their first run that couldn't be overcome with a nearly error-free second pass down the Cesana Pariol track.

But for a team of 21-year-olds — Joye doesn't officially turn 21 until this Sunday — sliding in their first Olympics it was a portentous start. If this keeps up and they keep gaining experience and, hopefully, a few pounds, they could be in a few more of these.

In a gravity sport like luge, weight is desirable, and Griffall and Joye don't have a lot of it. Joye is 5-foot-7 and 152 pounds and Griffall is 5-foot-10 and 154 after the full enchilada plate. Together they make one offensive lineman. Although they're allowed to carry added weight to compensate, the maximum allowed is 22 pounds. Some teams outweigh them by 50 pounds or more.

But there's more to the sport than dead weight, as the top U.S. team of Mark Grimmette and Brian Martin (combined weight: 361 pounds) demonstrated Wednesday when on their first run they came crooked into turn 18 and exited with their sled on top of them. Instead of defending the silver medal they won four years ago in Salt Lake City, the gold-medal hopefuls were out of the competition entirely.

Two other sleds ended on top of the world's best lugers on a day when the sunny skies in the Italian Alps that had blessed the Olympics since their beginning turned gray and brought a light snowfall that softened the ice on a track nasty enough when the ice was perfect.

Griffall and Joye had already had their crash. It happened Tuesday on their last practice run and was serious enough to cause Griffall to need eight stitches to sew a cut in his hip. His wrist was also broken or sprained, but he delayed having it X-rayed until after the Olympics. Nor did he publicize the injury, lest any of his competitors smell blood. Being skinny is bad enough.

With his father and brother watching from the stands, he "toughed it out and dealt with it" (his dad's words).

Absent in the stands was Preston's mother, Faith, who died of cancer two years ago this June. Nonetheless, she was the first person her Olympian son paid tribute to at the finish.

"I owe her so much. She was always there to keep me going," Preston said. "It's been a wild trip, starting with me not knowing anything about the sport, but she always told me I could do it. She said I could make the Olympics and realize my dream."

"He still sees his mother helping him all the time, looking over him," said Keith Griffall. "In the early years, she really helped him get through a lot. She was so excited for him, sometimes more maybe than a 15-year-old might like. But she was always excited and she was always there."

Preston and the Winter Sports Park, which later became the Utah Olympic Park, grew up together. He was sliding downhill between orange cones before the track was even finished. He may have more luge runs there than any person in history.

"We have to thank the taxpayers of Utah," said Keith Griffall, referring to the $59 million taxpayer referendum that funded many of the facilities that helped secure the 2002 bid.

When the Salt Lake Olympics arrived in February of 2002, Preston was a forerunner in the luge, riding his sled in front of 15,000 fans.

"He finished and said, 'Wow,' " remembered Keith. "I know that drove him even more to want to be in the Olympics."

Griffall and Joye, who lives in New York, became teammates early on and went on to dominate junior luging, winning two world doubles championships before turning 20. Last year, their first on the World Cup circuit, they finished the season ranked 11th in the world.

Wednesday, they were three better than that.

"I'm glad we finished on a good run," said Griffall, "we can take that with us. Overall, our first Olympic experience has been great, everything we expected. Now if we can capitalize on it and use it to get ready for 2010."

Lee Benson's column will run daily during the Torino Olympics. You can e-mail him at benson@desnews.com.