It Simply Took a Leap of Faith : Racial Incident Helps Turn Kennedy Into More Than Another Luge Racer


Here he is, coming up to the Winter Olympics with a legitimate chance to be the first American to win a medal in luge, and he is still questioned more about race relations than race results.

Duncan Kennedy turns that phrase with the same ease that he believes he has turned a corner on his passive and disappointing performances in the 1988 and 1992 Winter Games.

Having placed second overall in the six-race World Cup series--after finishing third last winter and second the winter before--Kennedy has proven again that he belongs with the sport’s elite and will put his back to the Norwegian wall of ice, he maintains, with a confidence and aggressiveness missing in his two previous Olympics.


“Fly or die,” is his motto.

Bold for the gold.

“I’m not going to cheat myself,” he said. “I’d rather risk a mistake or crash than play it safe again. There’s nothing to be gained by being apprehensive. I was too timid the last time (when his 10th place at Albertville, France, was the highest ever for a U.S. man but a significant disappointment considering he was ranked second in the world).

“I expected to medal and was too cautious. Maybe I was overwhelmed, but I know my best races come when I’m aggressive and attack the course.”

At 26, it has been 15 years since Kennedy was given a year or two to live by doctors who believed that he had an inoperable brain tumor and his mother took out a loan so that Kennedy, wearing an eye patch and walking awkwardly, could go to Europe and see his luge idols one last time.

Now, the kid who built luge runs in the back yard of his Lake Placid, N.Y., home has a flaming red, white and blue “U.S. luge” tattoo on his left biceps plus a surfing tattoo on his lower left leg, and maintains that his career has been a series of “little steps and ground-breakings,” leading to his current confidence and aggressiveness.

He disputes the big-bang theory of some that this confidence and aggressiveness were created in one burst last Oct. 29 when he confronted a group of about 15 skinheads taunting and threatening a black teammate, Robert Pipkins, in Oberhof, Germany.

“I had never been in a fight, never been punched, but I’ve always had the nasty habit of standing up for what I believe in, so I don’t think it was out of character,” Kennedy said.


Neither does his mother, Betsy, who recalled that the youngest of her four sons would often see skinheads on “Geraldo” and other TV shows, and remark how they were “jerks and punks,” meaning his “convictions became reality in Germany.”

Betsy Kennedy also recalled a night in Pompano Beach, Fla., when she faced an armed robber demanding her purse and jewelry and had the temerity to warn this mugger that he’d better leave because she was going to scream. She did, he did--and Betsy Kennedy jumped in her car in a futile attempt to catch him.

“The police gave me hell, but maybe there’s some of that in Duncan’s genes,” she said. “Of course, it could be any of my boys. I’ve always told them not to let people push you around.”


The events of last October have made Kennedy an international celebrity of sorts, and he feels a responsibility to talk about what happened.

“It’s an important enough issue for everyone to be concerned,” he said of the skinheads. “Too many people don’t take them seriously enough. Too many parents think it’s just a phase, but these guys have gone beyond shaved heads. They’re into weapons training and paramilitary operations and menacing people. They’re a real threat. I don’t even think of them as neo-Nazis because that softens who they are and what they are. They’re Nazis, period.”

Five members of the U.S. team in Oberhof had gone to a bar to celebrate the birthday of one. Gordy Sheer, who is Jewish and half of the best U.S. doubles team, noticed a swastika hanging in the bar and immediately went to his hotel room, barricading the door. Kennedy and Pipkins said they weren’t concerned until the number of skinheads began to increase and they began to make monkey gestures and sounds directed at Pipkins, while shouting racial epithets.


Pipkins, hobbling on a sore foot injured in a training accident, made his way up the stairs of the basement bar and back to his hotel room, under the impression that Kennedy was right behind him. Kennedy, however, said he was thinking that “Robert would definitely be killed,” so he stopped in the doorway of the bar, giving Pipkins time to escape as the skinheads marched at Kennedy, chanting, “Heil Hitler.”

“I couldn’t believe it,” Kennedy said in reflection. “I couldn’t believe that someone would have to run because of the color of their skin. I was hoping that with Robert gone, maybe they’d lose interest, but they kept coming.”

Kennedy was knocked to the ground in the bar’s parking lot and kicked in the ribs, legs and face. He suffered a mild concussion, bruised ribs and battered nose. His teeth have only recently stopped hurting, and he still has a measure of trouble breathing through his nose, a significant problem in competition since he wears a visor that already makes it difficult to breathe.

“I don’t know why or how, but they let up long enough to let me get away,” Kennedy said. He fled to his hotel room and called police, who asked him to return with them to the bar to make identifications. Now, however, he was confronted by twice as many skinheads and forced to take sanctuary in a locked police car.

“In some ways, I wish I had swallowed my morals and ID’d all of them,” he said.

Kennedy did identify three skinheads, two of whom went to trial in mid-January when he and the U.S. team returned to Oberhof under tight security for a World Cup event.

This time, he was greeted by schoolchildren carrying flowers and apologetic townspeople expressing affection. He testified at the Jan. 17 trial, and the older of the two assailants was sentenced to 33 months in prison, while the younger, sentenced to one year, is free on appeal.


“I shouldn’t have to get beat up to make people aware of how serious and dangerous this problem is, and it’s not just Germany,” Kennedy said. “We see it everywhere, and too many people are still too quiet and too afraid to speak out. As something of a public figure, I feel I have a responsibility to do it.”

Kennedy said he also is strengthened by his role in the events but would have arrived at this level of confidence and aggressiveness without it.

“I’ve been second twice and third in the World Cup over the last three years,” he said. “It’s come down to me, (Germany’s Georg) Hackl, (Austria’s Marcus) Prock and Wendel (Suckow, a U.S. teammate), so I have to think I belong. I mean, we used to go to Europe knowing we couldn’t compete, but now we know we can, and the Europeans know it, too. Now we get credit there for what we do, which is a real indication we belong. It took time, but we earned it. There was a long period when they just wouldn’t acknowledge anything we accomplished. They regarded it as a fluke, and that was pretty upsetting.”


Maintaining course through subtle use of centrifugal force and a delicate blend of passive aggressiveness, the luge driver hurtles down the ice chute at speeds up to 90 m.p.h., lying on his or her back while only inches above the refrigerated track. In the long winters of Lake Placid, Kennedy became hooked while serving as a gofer for ABC during the 1980 Winter Olympics there, and used the money he earned to buy his first sled.

“All kids think sleigh riding is pretty cool, and this is the ultimate sleigh ride,” said Kennedy, nicknamed “Speed.” “It was awesome, addictive. I had just turned 12 and I couldn’t believe how exciting it was.”

He won three national junior titles at 13, but his progress was retarded for a time after he awoke one morning violently sick, soon to experience double vision and partial paralysis.


The doctors were unsure, but the best guess was a tumor. Kennedy was given a year or two at most.

“They give your son a death sentence and it’s pretty traumatic,” Betsy Kennedy said. “We weren’t sure he’d see the fall colors again. The worst part was that it was kind of a diagnosis by exclusion. No one could say for certain what it was.”

In time, Kennedy’s symptoms dissipated, the medical opinion turning to a dissolving blood clot. Kennedy and his mother had made that last-hurrah trip to Europe on borrowed money, but in retrospect, she said, it may have been the most profitable of many expenditures--”the bank owns me,” said Betsy Kennedy, who does computer graphics--because it accelerated her son’s learning process. Now 5 feet 11 and 175 pounds, the healthy Kennedy has been sliding on a regular basis ever since, escaping occasionally in the summer to Santa Cruz to surf, and quitting briefly amid “burnt out emotions” in the winter of 1989-90 after finishing 14th in the ’88 Winter Games at Calgary, Canada.

“I eventually missed the atmosphere and the people,” Kennedy said of his return. “The World Cup circle is like a family. I came back stronger than ever mentally. I’ll keep sliding as long as it’s fun, then I want to go into coaching and design.”

The construction by York International of a $1.1-million indoor training complex, with three start ramps, in Lake Placid, and the coaching of Wolfgang Schadler is also credited by Kennedy with enhancing his development, as well as that of other U.S. sliders.

Clearly, Kennedy is still something of a free spirit, but what he does on the sled is more significant now than the Bart Simpson stickers he previously used as decorations on it.


Said an official of the U.S. Luge Assn.: “Everyone has always admired Duncan’s ability, but for a long time he was kind of a laid-back kid who didn’t seem to want a leadership role and would rebel occasionally over the smallest things.”

Kennedy upset the principal luge sponsor before the ’88 Games, for instance, by protesting the use of 3M-made aerodynamic tape on the bottom of the U.S. sleds.

“I don’t know if it was the incident in Germany,” the official continued, “but he’s definitely more aggressive, confident and focused now. It’s an individual sport to a large extent, but everyone seems to be feeding off his energy.”

Kennedy may have been too energetic and aggressive in the last World Cup race on Jan. 29, as he careened into ninth place, losing an opportunity to become the first American to win the season-long World Cup title. He won’t back off, however.

“I know there’s a lot of expectations on me again, but I’m confident I know how to handle it now, to make it work to my advantage,” he said. “Maybe I gave in to it in ‘92, but that won’t happen again.”

This much is certain: Duncan Kennedy will lie down on the job in Norway having already delivered a stand-up performance in the chilling arena that was Oberhof, Germany, on Oct. 29.