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Known as Grandma Luge, Abernathy Slides for Pride

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They handed out the medals in women’s luge Wednesday. Anne Abernathy came away empty--or did she?

The representative of the Virgin Islands--a hotbed, perhaps, but not of winter sports--might have been a winner merely by competing, certainly by finishing.

At 44 years and 305 days on Wednesday, nearly three times as old as Tara Lipinski and already known as Grandma Luge, she became the oldest female competitor to complete her event in Winter Olympics history.

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She finished 26th in her fourth Olympics, but hers is a victory of spirit. After all, Grandma Luge keeps dreaming the dream despite a 12-year battle with Hodgkin’s disease, a cancer of the lymph nodes.

She climbs the luge hill on a mountain of debt, having taken out a $40,000 loan early last year to travel and train in preparation for the Olympics.

Abernathy has not won a major event in 10 years on the World Cup circuit, but her ardor for the sport has not diminished since she first saw a luge track on a ski trip to Lake Placid, N.Y., in 1985, when she was already 30.

“I’m married to luge,” she said.

So there she was, coming off the Spiral high above Nagano, long after Germany’s Silke Kraushaar (17 years younger than Abernathy) had emulated fellow countryman Georg Hackl in winning the gold while wearing those same, slick super yellow booties--as did teammate Barbara Niedernhuber, who finished second ahead of Austria’s Angelika Neuner.

All three Americans finished in the top 10, but U.S. hopes of ending the luge medal drought before the Salt Lake City Games of 2002 now appear to rest with two strong doubles teams in Friday’s one-day, two-heat event.

Veteran Cammy Myler, long America’s premier female sledder and possibly competing in her last race, finished seventh Wednesday. Erin Warren was sixth, and Bethany Calcaterra-McMahon was eighth.

Abernathy would tell them it’s not where you finished but how you ran the race. She said she believes in the Olympic credo that the glory is in the participation, and puts herself in the same category as Prince Albert, the royal bobsledder from Monaco.

“That doesn’t make us any less Olympians,” she said.

In other words, while she strives to win and while she would love to be on that podium, she was not disappointed with her finish.

“Because I come from a country with no training facilities and started at an age when most lugers are retiring, my goal is to do the best I can possibly do, look professional on the sled and put 100% into it,” she said. “That’s what I’ve done, and I don’t think any Olympian can ask for more.”

Abernathy doesn’t actually come from the Virgin Islands. She is a U.S. citizen who was born on Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. She graduated from Robert E. Lee High School in Virginia and American University in Washington.

Her father was an Air Force inspector general for the Caribbean and she took up residency there in the early 1980s.

She was also once a member of the U.S. luge program but, in the words of a U.S. official, “couldn’t compete and washed out. That’s why she competes for the Virgin Islands and why she seems to hold a grudge.” He referred to the fact that Abernathy doesn’t hesitate in saying, “It’s extremely important to me to beat the U.S. athletes.”

It hasn’t happened often, but she earned enough World Cup points to qualify for an Olympics. Of course, she doesn’t have any internal competition because she’s the only female luger in the Virgin Islands. She’s also one of only two lugers from the Islands to compete in the Olympics (Kyle Heikkila competed in Albertville and Lillehammer).

“I’m not somebody who did the minimum to get here,” she said. “I did the maximum. I quit my job [as an international producer with America Online] in March so I could prepare full time. It wasn’t the first time I had resigned a job with no assurance I could come back to it.

“I took the $40,000 loan. I teamed with a girl from New Zealand and we hired a coach [Thomas Zeitz of Germany]. Since October, I’ve been in a different country almost every week. I mean, everything I did for the last year was focused on these two days.”

Amid it all, Abernathy has waged her battle with cancer, a subject she is reluctant to talk or think about because “I don’t want it to get in the way. I don’t want to be known as someone who is ill, because I don’t feel ill. I feel stronger and healthier than I ever have. I mean, I don’t mind being known as old even though I don’t feel old. I don’t mind being known as Grandma Luge, or a person who has had five knee surgeries and a lot of bad crashes. It’s just that I’ve worked real hard to get where I am and I hate to have the focus off the Olympics or my achievements.”

People are taking notice. IBM is currently featuring Grandma Luge in one of its commercials. E-mail is building. A small fan club of Nagano-based Americans waited to hug and chat with her long after the competition here. Growing sales of Grandma Luge T-shirts and donations to the Virgin Islands Luge Assn. are modestly helping to defray her large debts.

How long will she continue to compete?

“I don’t know what comes next,” she said. “It’s an expensive endeavor, and I haven’t wanted to dream the next dream until this one was finished.”


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