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Somewhere, Bonny Warner Was Smiling

February 10th, 2018 · No Comments · Olympics

I first interviewed Bonny Warner in February of 1984, a week before the Sarajevo Olympics.

She grew up in Mount Baldy Village, a hamlet on the shoulder of the mountain, and went to school in San Bernardino County, where our newspaper circulated.

So we snapped to attention when we realized that a college kid from our market was a U.S. qualifier for an Olympic event. Even if it was what, at the time, seemed like a particularly exotic sport:

Luge.

An Olympic standard since 1964, mostly overlooked in the U.S.

The story got more interesting as we dug into it. It was about a series of not-particularly-likely events that led to Warner being considered an outside candidate for a medal in Yugoslavia — despite the fact that no American had ever medalled in luge.

In three tries, she never did win that medal, though she came close in Calgary 1988, when she was sixth. But her story was interesting enough and she was good enough at the high-speed sliding event that she earned the respect of the Europeans who dominated the sport and became a sort of ambassador for luge in the U.S.

She was involved in clinics to help identify and recruit promising candidates for her sport; I seem to remember sleds on wheels being sent down the road from Mount Baldy.

By Nagano 1998, the breakthrough came; American men won silver and bronze in the men’s doubles. In Sochi 2014, an American woman won a bronze.

That left only men’s singles as an event with zero American medal-winners and, today, that box was checked when Chris Mazdzer earned a silver medal at the Pyeongchang Games.

And somewhere, Bonny Warner smiled.

The U.S. Olympic movement might still be dealing with a big fat zero in luge, if not for Warner.

She was the kind of self-starting, stick-to-it personality the sport needed.

A high-achieving student and rugged athlete in field hockey and track, she was chosen to be the California torch bearer ahead of the 1980 Winter Games in Lake Placid, New York. She was part of the opening and closing ceremonies, and in between she had time to watch a bunch of sports she knew little about.

She enjoyed it so much that she began to mull how she could be a part of the Olympic movement.

She heard about luge tryouts, after the Lake Placid Games concluded, and she hung around and decided she liked it and wanted to pursue it and, yes, probably realized that the competition was something far less than stiff in the world of U.S. luge.

She was 17.

Ahead of Sarajevo 1984, she went to Stanford University half the year and spent much of the rest of her time in Europe, learning luge the hard way, from the snooty Euros, studying German so she could learn from the luge masters, making do on money from home and what she picked up as a nanny at night — allowing her to train on luge tracks during the day.

When I finally spoke with her, she dismissed the dangers of luge — which involves going down a hill feet-first and face-up, at speeds up to 70 mph. With no brakes to pump.

“The whole secret about it is that it looks dangerous but isn’t,” she said.

I asked if she were concerned about hitting something, while tearing along on a three-foot sled inside a narrow U-shaped course.

She said no.

“There’s nothing to hit,” she said. “You bang around some but you rarely go over the side. I’ve had a lot of bumps and bruises but the worst I’ve ever had is a broken pinky. I honestly think you’re in more danger the first time you go skiing.”

She came up with a “tell” for someone who might make it at luge, as opposed to the 99 percent who would not.

“Most people ask, ‘How do you stop it?’ The ones who say, ‘How do you steer it?’ are the ones who have a chance.”

I saw her final day as a luge slider at the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville. The luge track was on the top of a 6,000-foot-high mountain, near a little village named La Plagne. I was concerned the bus might fall off the narrow road that wound its way to the top.

Warner was no longer the top American slider because she by then had a commercial pilot’s license and had been hired by United Airlines. Luge was still important, but it was losing time to field hockey (four years of it at Stanford) and a couple of years working in broadcasting and the six months a year she was working for United.

In 1992, she said she was faster than she had been than in 1988, but the competition had improved even faster than she did.

She finished 18th, and broke out in tears, not from disappointment, but from a sense of loss.

She was polishing the runners of her sled the night before, something she had done thousands of times before. “Then it hit me that this was the last time I’d ever be doing that, and I started to cry.”

From what I could tell, no individual did more to advance the sport of luge in the U.S., back when it was still in the shadows, than did Bonny Warner.

She lived it, she promoted it, she talked about it. She was accessible and interesting and she earned the respect of the sport’s elite.

She attempted an Olympic comeback in 2001, at the age of 39, aiming for the 2002 Salt Lake Games, but this time as the driver in the two-person bobsled. She almost made it; some late changes among brakemen left her unable to make the cut.

It would have been nice, but luge was her thing, and she has seen her homeland become competent in it … and now just plain competitive in it.

She is a mother now, and is still flying, from what we can tell, but I am confident that she was watching when Mazdzer took the silver and was accepting congratulations.

Someone should have congratulated Warner, too. And if no one did, please accept this: “Well done, Bonny Warner.”

 

 

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