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2010 Winter Games: Olympians slide with heavy hearts

Tony Benshoof of the United States starts the first run of the men's singles luge competition in Whistler Saturday.
Tony Benshoof of the United States starts the first run of the men's singles luge competition in Whistler Saturday.
Charlie Krupa, Associated Press

WHISTLER, British Columbia — Someone had to be first, and it was Tony Benshoof.

Overlooking a labyrinth that claimed the life of one of his competitors a day earlier, Benshoof, the top U.S. medal hope in men's luge, drew a breath of mountain air, secured the visor over his face and dropped down this elevator shaft of ice not knowing what to expect.

He glided to the bottom, slower but safer. And that's all that mattered.

The Olympic sliding track, slightly modified to make it less perilous and more than 5 mph slower for racers, reopened Saturday less than 24 hours after Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili died in a horrifying crash not likely to be forgotten by anyone who witnessed it on Blackcomb Mountain or on television.

For Benshoof, there was no time to mourn.

"Unfortunately, there was a terrible tragedy," said Benshoof, a three-time Olympian competing with at least three herniated discs, plus an aching foot from a brush with the Whistler track wall on Friday. "But at the end of the day we have a competition to go through, and I tried to put it all out of my head."

That was almost impossible.

Reminders of Kumaritashvili's death seemed everywhere — from the reconfigured final curve and raised wall, to the black tape stuck to the helmets of some athletes. Flowers were left by the base of the steel beam that he struck near the 16th turn. There was also a card with the inscription, "Just like gold, your dream will live forever."

A moment of silence was held before the first heat of the men's competition in memory of Kumaritashvili. His photo was displayed on a video scoreboard.

"It's still fresh in our hearts," said Shiva Keshavan from India. "We're not able to compete with that same joy."

Kumaritashvili's teammate, Levan Gureshidze, did not race. He was on the official start list for the first heat but withdrew.

International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge attended the competition with Vancouver organizing chief John Furlong.

Before Benshoof pushed down the starting ramp and cleanly navigated through the 16-turn course, luge officials announced the men would begin at the women's start, a decision they hoped would reduce speeds and lessen the chance for accidents.

The men began their two-day competition with a clean first heat, with all 38 racers completing their runs.

But even to the untrained eye, it was obvious the lugers were crawling compared to the zooming speeds they reached in the first days of practice.

Not everyone seemed happy.

"It's slow," said Austria's Manuel Pfister, who was clocked at almost 96 mph on Thursday. "It's completely different. Yesterday, I was able to slide with the medal ranks, today it's another race. It's difficult for me. Maybe it's now too easy."

The decision to change the start's location seemed to have the desired effect during men's training, the first session on the track after Kumaritashvili's terrifying crash. None of the athletes broke 90 mph after speeds routinely surpassed 95 mph earlier in the week.

"The changes that they made were positive," Benshoof said. "I didn't notice them going down the track itself. Of course, now, with a lowered start, it's significantly slower, significantly easier and significantly safer. Personally, I'd rather go from up top because that's kind of my personality and my driving style.

"But I think generally speaking, it was a good decision."