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Canadian luge slider Regan Lauscher ends Olympics in 15th, hangs up booties

The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION
By: Dean Bennett, THE CANADIAN PRESS
16/02/2010

WHISTLER, B.C. - On her last run in her last race in her last Olympics, Regan Lauscher whipped down the Whistler luge track like a laser beam at a blurring 134 km/h - but still managed to stop and smell the roses.

"I just took it all in," she said. "I soaked it all up. I just tried to believe in my ability, to feel the wind, to hear the people cheering. I think I looked at every fan on the way down.

"As much as I could I didn't look at the ice. I just felt it."

The 29-year-old slider from Red Deer, Alta., hung up her luge booties for good after the medal run in the women's event Tuesday.

She finished 15th at the Vancouver Olympics to put an exclamation mark on a trailblazing career punctuated by candour, controversy and a catastrophic crash that almost turned her brain into Jell-O.

"This is it. It's over. It feels great," Lauscher said moments after she came up the out-run, pumping her arms and waving at the hundreds of cheering, bell-ringing, flag-waving fans, including her parents, family and fiancee.

"I'm not really sure in life I'll find a parallel feeling to this. It's been an amazing journey, especially these last four years. They've been riddled with challenges and question marks and self doubt.

"But looking back, it feels like a story worth telling."

Regan (pronounced REE-gun) was born on Feb. 21, 1980, in Saskatoon. Her father worked on the rigs and the family followed the oil patch, first to Calgary, and then to Red Deer.

Young Regan loved the boy band New Kids on the Block. She wrote poems and short stories and would sometimes break into song in the middle of a shopping mall, just to embarrass her two older brothers.

In junior high school, she was taken on a nearby hill to try a luge run. She went straight down the hill and slammed into a fence. It was love at first fright.

By 19 she was competing internationally on luge tracks and rising fast, eventually becoming a seven-time national champion.

In 2002 she finished 12th at Salt Lake in her first Olympics. She was the best woman on the team, given the team was just her.

In 2004, she became the first Canadian to win a World Cup luge medal, taking silver at Lake Placid, N.Y.

On the road, racing in Europe, she was lonely. The guys on the team were great but they were guys. Her mother remembers a lot of teary phone calls home.

"There were breaking points there," said Vicki Lauscher. "It was pretty lonely and pretty hard."

At 2006 at the Turin Olympics, she was joined by current teammates Alex Gough and Meaghan Simister. Gough was still a teenager then but was a natural, the woman who could instinctively find the optimum racing line. The new face of the sport. Simister was 19 but had arms as long as rowboat oars. She could fire out of the start handles with the best in the world.

As their future brightened, Lauscher's was almost extinguished at the punishing track in Altenberg, Germany, in January 2007. Altenberg is a bleak, unforgiving track near the Czech border developed by the old East German police to winnow out the weak.

Lauscher was roaring through the bottom curves that day, trying to make time by whipping herself out of the infamous final loop-de-loop.

It was too much, too fast. The G-forces pounded her head backwards onto the blue ice.

Wham!

She was unconscious, a rag-doll in a speed suit drifting up the out run, and then down again.

Stay awake, Regan! Stay awake! the medics yelled at her as they wrapped her in blankets and hustled her into an ambulance.

For 24 hours, they couldn't scan her brain because it was too swollen. The recovery was slow and painful. Even going up the stairs brought vertigo so intense she would almost pass out.

When she came back, her head was fine but now a long-running problem with her shoulders forced her to make a hard decision.

Lauscher went by the name of Gumby because she was so flexible she could touch her forearm with her thumb and even zip up the back of her own race suit. In flexibility testing, she could - flat on her back, butt to the wall, legs to the sky - do the splits until her ankles almost touched the floor.

But such pliability became a curse in a sport where sliders rock back and forth then fire off the start handles like a slingshot. Regan's arms had lost their elasticity. She would pull back in the start handles, but then had to violently wrench her shoulders to gain the slingshot effect.

Eventually her shoulders rebelled. They would slide out of their sockets during weight training and eventually even in simple tasks, like opening a car door.

The pain was excruciating.

Two years ago, she decided to have surgery done on both shoulders, hoping that she could rehab them in time for the 2010 Olympic season.

It worked. Sort of. As this season began, the shoulders were weak and so was Lauscher. She spent the season mired between ninth and 15th place.

Leading up to the Games, she caused a cross-Canada furor when she said publicly that Whistler residents weren't exactly feeling the Olympic love. Some of them, she complained, seemed to dislike having the Games in their backyard and resented the Olympic athletes hogging the equipment at the local gym.

That brought coast-to-coast debate, some applauding Lauscher for being brave enough to speak to her mind; others labelled her a spoiled brat.

But as she hung up her luge sled for good, she said her one regret was that she couldn't start it all over again right now.

The program, she said, is light years ahead of where it was a decade ago. There's top-notch coaching under former German team mentor Wolfgang Staudinger, and money coming in from a corporate sponsor.

"Canadians are no longer a joke. We're competitors. People are looking at our finish times. They're videotaping us on the track and that was never the case before.

"(Before) we'd hopefully show up with our sled intact and just try to cross the finish lane twice."

"(Now) you look at the juniors and you look at us. I mean, their starts are there. Their strength is there. They have legitimate speed suits. They're not in these raggedy things with duct-taped boots."

As for Lauscher, she said she'll take her journalism degree and move on to the next phase. She is getting married in October in Manhattan.

"It's time," said Gumby. "Time to move on and let somebody else come in and have the time of their life."