Almanack: Luger who aims to be a winner

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The Independent Online
LUGE does not have a high profile in Great Britain, and 19-year-old Paul Hix - our only luger in Lillehammer - may not be the man to give it one. For a start, he is the only team member whose mug-shot does not appear in the team brochure: the square where it should be is filled by a strange squiggle, a bit like a prehistoric cave drawing. This, a British Olympic Association spokesperson admits, is meant to be a luge.

The other reason for the sport's low profile is that Paul doesn't spend a lot of time in this country. In a reversal of the classic nationality-qualification rule exemplified by England cricketers (born elsewhere, they come to live here), Paul was born in this country but has lived in Germany since his early childhood.

Almanack caught up with him during a break from his training in Lillehammer. Is luge a common pastime in Germany? 'I wouldn't say it was common,' he replies. 'But at least people have heard of it.' This is not the case in Paul's native land. 'People in England don't know much about luging,' he laments. 'You tell them it's similar to bobsleigh, and they know what you mean.'

Similar to bobsleigh, that is, but without the bobsleigh. Doesn't the luger feel rather vulnerable hurtling down an ice chute at 75mph with nothing between ice and body but a suit that looks like a giant condom? Do they feel fear, or exhilaration? 'It's more concentration,' says Paul, in tones of Mansellesque banality. 'If you go to a new track you feel a certain amount of apprehension, but very seldom fear.'

One anecdote illustrates the danger of the sport and the spirit in which it is faced. In December, the American luger Bethany Calcaterra-McMahon sliced off German coach Sepp Lenz's left leg below the knee when she ran into him at high speed during training for a World Cup race in Germany. Lenz had slipped while sweeping the track. The two have since met in Lillehammer: Sepp (now with a false limb) waggishly asked Bethany if she would like to dance.

Hix's trainer is an extravagantly moustachioed German taxi driver called Thomas Rzezniczok (British officials refer to him simply as Thomas). Paul reports that Thomas is pleased with his progress. What about equipment? 'My sled is a Latvian sled,' he says. Are they the best? 'No.' So why don't you have the best? 'The best are made by the national teams for their own athletes. To get a better sled would cost a lot more money.' So prospects for the competition (which starts this morning) aren't too good? 'If I can get four good runs,' Paul declares, 'I should be able to make the top 25. And I'd definitely be satisfied with that.'

(Photograph omitted)

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