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Canadian luge slider peaking as Olympics near

By Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press
Posted Thursday, November 26, 2009 2:14 PM ET
www.ctvolympics.ca

CALGARY - Sam Edney sat woozily in the bloodstained ward of a Latvian hospital that was redolent of antiseptic and death, trying to explain that the X-ray of his smashed, throbbing hand captured the intact bones but missed the shattered ones.

"It was a horrifying experience. Straight out of the USSR,' the 25-year-old Olympic luge slider recalls with a laugh.

It happened at the tiny town of Sigulda in Latvia's "Swiss Alps' in December 2003. The Calgary-born racer was sliding doubles on the World Cup circuit with partner Gwyn Lewis.

The Sigulda track had long been their nemesis, and on this day it was downright nasty.

They were racing down through curve 10, Edney, the front driver, on top, strapped to Lewis and the sled beneath them.

On curve 11 the sled rocketed up, up, up to the roof of the track, then over, and upside down, a two-man Poseidon Adventure whizzing onto the short wall at more than 100 kilometres an hour.

Edney threw his arms out, bracing for impact.

Wham! The back of his right hand slammed into the metal post on a railing, ripping the middle two fingers of his glove clean off at the base, leaving his hand and arm completely numb.

Skidding to a stop, he looked down at his hand and could only see the index and pinky fingers, both pointing out in a twisted devil-horns configuration.

"My God, I've ripped my fingers off!' he remembers thinking. "They're gone. I'm never going to be able to write again.'

As coaches rushed to help, another looked down the course, pointing to the remains of the glove - two black sausages on white ice.

Canadian coach Robert Fegg inched over toward the digit casings, bent down, and squeamishly squeezed.

Empty.

Edney's hand was intact, but his adventure was just beginning.

At the time, the Canadian team did not have a physiotherapist on staff. The U.S. doctor wrapped the hand, which was quickly swelling to the size of a purplish, yellow-green football.

Edney's coach at the time, Walter Corey, took him to the hospital. When they arrived, orderlies were cleaning blood off the floor and draining it into a garbage pail.

They wheeled Edney past wards of cadaverous patients, sunken cheeks and hollow eyes, beside graphic action photos of surgeries in progress.

"The smell of the hospital was brutal,' says Edney. "There's a guy that's dying in front of me. He looked at me and he was like a skeleton.'

The X-ray was a massive machine with long, spidery arms, the operator crouched behind a cement wall. Edney's radiation apron was more like a bib. He frantically pushed it down with his good hand to cover the southern regions.

The X-ray missed most of the fracture area. And the part it captured was so blurred no one could tell whether it was a broken bone or a cumulus cloud.

Edney and Corey looked at each other.

That's it. We're out of here.

For the rest of the week, Edney was treated with ice and Advil and eventually got fixed up in Germany. Six years later, the only souvenir is a calcified bump.

It was a memorable moment in the career of Edney, who joined luge after being scouted in a talent camp at Calgary's Canada Olympic Park in Grade 9 in 1998. He was a natural athlete - hockey, volleyball, basketball - and was a towering five foot 10 before he even hit high school.

At camp, 50 aspirants slid twice and walked the track. OK, said the coach afterward, who can sketch the track layout from memory? Only Edney could do it.

He moved next to a three-week development camp and then to the junior team, sliding doubles with Lewis.

"They were just shoving us up the hill as quickly as possible,' he says. "There were days where I'd crash and it was tons of fun. It was like tobogganing, but you'd get to do it repeatedly and there's a truck there to take you back up (the hill).'

Edney-Lewis proved a powerhouse contender on the junior side, while Edney continued to slide in singles as well.

But when they moved up to the senior World Cup circuit, everything changed.

Now they were racing against men, the best in the world, starting higher up the track, at killer super-speedway European venues. Lewis-Edney crashed. And crashed. And crashed. About one race in four ended kufens down, Lewis surfing lazily down the course on top of Edney's helmet.

After two events in the pre-Olympic qualifying races of 2005 they were clearly the third-best Canadian team - and only the top two would go to Turin. But as a singles slider, Edney knew he could still make it to the five-ring circus.

The showdown came before the third race at Altenberg, Germany.

It's time to talk, Lewis told Edney in their room. Your moonlighting on the singles team is killing our chances in doubles.

"I give you my word,' Edney remembers replying. "If we have a bad race here, I'll drop singles and we'll do doubles (alone).'

No, said Lewis. We can't wait. Doubles only, doubles now, or it's over.

Edney gave his answer.

Lewis went home.

It was the hardest decision of his career, says Edney, "But I think in the long run it's been the best one.' Sliding solo, he made the 2006 Games, heading to the track at Turin in northern Italy for two whirlwind weeks with the world watching.

He remembers relaxing shirtless on the patio outside his room at Sestriere, catching rays in 20 C weather, sitting on a mountain looking at mountains. He was granite on the outside, Jell-O on the inside.

"I remember waking up the day of the race and thinking, 'Oh my God, this is the Olympic Games.' I was relaxed, but at the same time there's that knot in your stomach.'

He finished 19th. Since Turin, his career has been moments of promise leavened by failure and disappointment.

He was ninth in the 2008 World Championships, but in the last three years has been ranked around 20th among world sliders - not bad, but about as close to Olympic glory as Pluto to the sun.

Canada's luge team has not fared any better. It has won just a handful of World Cup and World Championship awards in its entire history and has never taken home Olympic hardware.

But with more development money coming in and new coach Wolfgang Staudinger taking the reins in 2007, fortunes are changing.

Staudinger, an ex-coach with the German team, is stressing dryland strength training focused on luge-specific muscles to improve the blast-off from the start handles. Sleds are now custom-built in-house. Cameras on the 2010 Olympic track in Whistler allow for real-time frame-by-frame evaluations of driving lines.

Edney, whose strength has always been a quick push from the top, has thrived. Earlier this month, at Calgary's Canada Olympic Park in the first race of the 2010 World Cup season, he drove to a career-best fifth.

"He competed from the top to the bottom with the best in the world,' says Staudinger. "He did his homework. He did his job. He worked hard in the summer and it starts to pay off.

"We're in the league where we want to be and (strong finishes) are not just a fluke anymore. It's actually happening.'

Edney says things will be different at the Whistler Sliding Centre in February.

"You dream about an Olympic medal,' he says. "In Torino I was not even dreaming that far ahead. But this time around, it's a different story.'

It's the only game he's focused on.

Hands down.