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She's got a ticket to ride

LugeSports

If Ryan Sheckler, the skateboarding MTV heartthrob from San Clemente, ever needs a companion with X Games-like fearlessness, 15-year-old Kate Hansen of La Cañada could be the perfect match.

She owns five skateboards, loves roller coasters, has gone surfing at midnight in Malibu and -- the coolest thing of all -- she's the only teenage luge competitor in the United States based in Southern California, according to USA Luge.

Her specialty is riding a sled while on her back at speeds up to 70 mph.

"It's you, the sled and the ice, and it's like magic," she said.

On Nov. 8, Hansen left to compete on the World Cup circuit in Europe as a member of the U.S. junior national luge team. She has luge races scheduled in Germany and Austria before returning home in the middle of December, when she'll resume playing for the La Cañada girls' basketball team.

How she has been able to become a promising luge competitor while still living in sunny Southern California is a story of perseverance, family dedication and unconventional thinking.

"It's been bizarre," her father, John, said.

Out of 102 USA Luge competitors, only two live in California -- the other is a male who lives in Northern California. From November to February, Hansen travels to Park City, Utah, twice a month to train. Then there are trips to Lake Placid, N.Y., for national competitions. Lake Placid and Park City feature the only fully refrigerated, Olympic-level luge tracks in the U.S.

"She does have a certain toughness where she'll leave a palm tree to come to where it's 10 degrees below zero to train," said Jon Owen, western regional coach for USA Luge.

When friends ask Hansen, "What did you do this weekend?" her answers are beyond strange.

"It's like two different worlds," she said of her homes away from home. "They all live in cold, snowy climates. At the last camp, we were talking about all the trees we have in front of our houses.

"A girl from the East Coast has a redwood. A girl from Utah has a cactus. Well, I have palm trees. They were laughing, 'You're so lucky to live in California.' "

So far, her luge coaches have accommodated Hansen by allowing her to make up practices while maintaining a residence where snow falls about once every 50 years.

"One of her skills is she's just a great kid with a positive attitude," Owen said. "She's a naturally gifted athlete. Every sport she touches she excels at. We're all fighting for a piece of her."

Hansen is 5 feet 8, has braces on her teeth and puts her blond hair in a ponytail when she races. She played junior varsity volleyball this fall at La Cañada and used to play soccer and softball. She's the youngest of four children. Her older brothers played water polo at La Cañada and a sister was a cheerleader.

She's a true daredevil in every sense. As a 10-year-old, she used to lie on her back to ride her skateboard down a winding street near her house.

"Well, I was young and didn't know what I was doing," she said. "And the street was just paved."

As for riding roller coasters, she said, "I love losing my stomach when you can't breathe and take those big drops."

About the only things that frighten her are spiders and confined spaces.

She discovered luge when a friend of her father introduced her to the sport. USA Luge was conducting a search for potential competitors. She survived the cut five years ago and has kept getting better.

While sitting on a couch at home, Hansen nonchalantly showed off ice burns on her elbows and arms from crashing her sled.

Wearing a skin-tight aerodynamic suit, gloves and a helmet, Hansen maneuvers her sled while on her back, steering with her legs, shoulders and hands. The course,with 16 curves to navigate, takes less than 50 seconds to complete. It requires a kinetic awareness to succeed, with G forces pushing competitors into their sleds and other forces propelling the sled up and down.

"It creates a unique sensation, the roller-coaster sensation, where you're working in a three-dimensional space," Owen said.

Hansen, with the support of her parents, has been able to juggle school responsibilities and luge commitments while remaining in Southern California.

She understands there could be a day when luge coaches ask her to train full time, but that would mean leaving her home.

"It's just so fun to go out to the beach and go surfing," she said. "I don't know if I could handle the snow the rest of my life. I try not to think about it because I don't want to have to go through so much stress."

Last week, Hansen finished third out of 30 racers in her first event in Germany.

She took with her to Europe a ukulele, a Dodgers blanket and a laptop computer that has a webcam so she can communicate with friends.

"I'm going to miss my family and surfing," she said. "I'm going to miss the palm trees and everything about California . . . and burritos."

eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

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