Houston's Best (And Possibly Only) Olympic Luger Makes A Comeback

Ruben Gonzalez, a three-time Olympic luger, had already come out of retirement twice. It didn't take much to inspire him to do it again.

Last year was the 20th anniversary of his first Olympics, the 1988 Calgary games. Which got him thinking: What if he could do it one last time?

Gonzalez was 39 for his last Olympics in 2002. People thought he was a coach. He's not sure what they'll take him for this time around -- maybe the coach's dad, he says. If he makes the cut for the 2010 Vancouver games, he'll be the only American to compete in the winter Olympics in four separate decades (he also made the 1992 games).

"I'm sliding better than ever," he says.

Gonzalez remembers being the last kid picked in PE class and says he always wanted to be an Olympian. Born and raised in Houston, he picked the luge -- in which competitors take one- or two-person fiberglass sleds down mile-long ice courses at speeds of over 85 miles per hour -- because he figured it was his best chance. The sport's frequent crashes and broken bones would convince a lot of people to quit.

He has since broken his foot (twice), knee, elbow and ribs, and he calls his neck a "chiropractor's dream." Even without the crashes, luge is a physical sport. Gonzalez weighs about 200 pounds, which means that G-Forces of up to five can crush him against curves with 1000 pounds of pressure.

"It's a bumpy ride," he says. "You're seeing double the whole way down."

Steering requires both touch and body control. Pushing down with the right shoulder moves the sled to the right. Pulling on the right handle veers right harder. And pushing down with the right leg cuts it all the way to the left.

"People watch us out there and don't think we're steering. They think all we do is hold on and pray," Gonzalez says.

With a lack of ice in Houston, Gonzalez mostly cross-trains to prepare. He also goes to the rink in Memorial City and practices his starts, going from sitting to laying down and pulling himself along the ice with spiked gloves ("The skaters think I'm nuts," he says.)

When Gonzalez first decided on his most recent comeback, the International Luge Federation told him to forget it. They said he was too old, and coming off too long a hiatus. It would be too dangerous.

The track at Vancouver is among the fastest in the world. Last October, it was opened to lugers for 10 days. They had 24 runs each. Gonzalez made it through all of them without crashing once. When he finished, Luge Federation officials greeted him with a message:

"Welcome back."

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