Now or Never

Tony Benshoof loves to win—almost as much as he loves to zoom, lying feet-first on a tiny sled, down an icy track.

It was February 2006, the Turin Winter Olympics. The Italian sun had already faded into pitch-black night when Tony Benshoof, a burly, 30-year-old bartender from White Bear Lake, settled onto his sled. He was ready—ready to launch himself down an ice-lined track going 98 miles per hour, face-up, feet-first, shoulders down, his back on a 50-pound slab of fiberglass with sharp steel runners beneath it.

The medal he had long sought was so close to his grasp he could almost feel its weight around his neck. He’d soldiered through the disappointing games in Salt Lake City four years earlier, where he’d finished in 17th place, but this time he was ready. He knew every one of the 19 curves, every bump and nuance of the course at Cesana Pariol, just west of Turin. On this night of promise, he had no need to see where he was going—so it didn’t matter that he had no time to look as he sped down the course.

The rest is history…but not the stuff Olympic legends are made of. Benshoof finished fourth in the luge finals near Turin, just .153 seconds behind the third-place guy from Latvia. That’s a total of .153 seconds from four separate runs over two days down a 1,435-meter course, an average differential per slide between him and the bronze medalist of .04 seconds. “The blink of an eye,” Benshoof says, though he knows fourth might as well be 400th when only three colors matter: gold, silver, and bronze.

Even so, his obsession with the sport and his drive to compete have led him, once again, to the Winter Olympics in Vancouver. He’s ready to reach again for the five Olympic rings and—this time—bring home one of those medals.

Tony Benshoof’s life and identity are enmeshed in the dangerous and some would say goofy sport of luge. He has spent 20 years zipping feet first down the side of an Alp or a Rocky or an Adirondack. Wrapped in Lycra, his head in a projective helmet, his face behind a necessary windshield, he’s learned to use the slightest tilt of his torso to steer into and out of harrowing twists and turns, and to maintain his balance in the face of G-forces that can exceed 4 Gs. After thousands of training runs and hundreds of competitions, Benshoof admits, “Walls with ice, going 90, they scare the hell out of me. But those are the tracks I like the best because I know they scare the hell out of everyone else, too.”

Luge—pronounced, lewzh—is a bipolar sport. It demands nearly simultaneous strength and relaxation, push and stillness. “At the start, he has to be very aggressive, very strong,” says U.S. luge coach Wolfgang Schädler. That’s the only part of a run the athlete controls; after that, it’s all about finesse. “In the next split second, he must be calm, without any emotion. He must feel the track,” says Schädler. “Everything has to be round and smooth. There can be no resistance.”

To this sport of fearlessness and physics, of zoom and Zen, add pain. Just three months after Benshoof’s disappointing fourth-place finish at Turin, the years of flexing like a rubber band to jump-start his sled at the beginning of races caught up with him: Two discs in his back became herniated. He sought treatment and, as world-class athletes do, continued competing through the pain in 2007 and 2008.

But the Turin fourth-place still tasted bitter. In a series of heart-to-hearts with Schädler, Benshoof told his coach he was thinking of quitting. “I said, ‘No, Tony, you can’t do that to me,’” Schädler remembers. “For him, the magic wasn’t there.” Benshoof’s performances on the World Cup tour suffered, as did his bank account, which relied on international prize money to provide him with a reasonable living.

He supplemented his income through a jobs program sponsored by the U.S. Olympic Committee and funded by Home Depot—Benshoof worked the paint and lumber departments in Maplewood until Home Depot pulled its support in 2007. He scrambled to get out from under a burdensome mortgage on a house he shared with friends in White Bear Lake. He returned to his tried-and-true source of income: bartending in a not-so-upscale restaurant in Hugo.
At the same time, the steel blades on his sled, beloved companions with miles of victories on them, dulled. He had to acquire new ones and fine-tune them. For a luger, that’s akin to housebreaking a new dog.

By the end of 2008, after a competition in Germany, his back was screaming. He couldn’t stand up. On his way home from Europe for emergency surgery, he was compelled to get down on all fours on the moving walkway in the airport. It was that bad.

But his surgery was a success. Pain-free for the first time in three years, he moved to Lake Placid, New York, for rehabilitation. He stretched for an hour or more a day. He worked on his core muscles to strengthen the back. He lifted weights that didn’t stress his back. Within six weeks, Benshoof had returned to competition. That was when he looked at himself in the mirror and decided he’d come too close to stop. With the 2010 Vancouver Olympics in his backyard, he would be there.

There’s no Little League for luge, but there is something called the “Slider Search.” USA Luge, the sport’s national governing body, has sponsored this traveling audition show for 25 years. In 1990, Benshoof, a 14-year-old who’d been getting out his adolescent energy by boxing, decided to give luge a try. He was introduced to the sport near the Mississippi River, his sled on wheels rolling down an asphalt hill near the Franklin Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis. A luge scout determined Benshoof had potential, and the kid determined he’d found his passion. “Just going downhill, the thrill of going fast, I felt at home,” Benshoof says. The sport took him away from home, to Calgary for his first real ice sliding and then around the globe representing the United States.

It took him five seasons to figure out the Zen of luge, the science and art of balancing physical speed with the need to slow everything down mentally as he whooshed down a track. “That whole thrill of going 90 miles per hour, you want that to wear off and replace it with a more methodical approach,” he says. He spent more than a decade rising among the world’s best competitors in a sport that rewards longevity; 34 might seem old for a luger in the United States, but it’s when Austrians and Germans reach their peak. Benshoof is the most decorated U.S. male luger ever, with 37 medals in various international events and seven U.S. titles. He finished third in the overall World Cup standings in 2005-06 before his back acted up.

He was even beginning to make a living at it. When he was winning World Cup races and finishing strong in season-long standings, his income was nothing to sneeze at. Now, after the back surgery, a shortened 2009 season, and poor results heading down the home stretch to the Vancouver Games, Benshoof has been living on a $1,000-a-month U.S. Olympic Committee stipend.

But it’s not about the money. It never has been. It’s about the love of the sport. It’s about that darned .153 second margin four years ago. It’s about battling for supremacy with the all-stars of international luge—people like Italy’s Armin Zöggeler, a four-time Olympic medalist and five-time world champion. It’s about bringing home an Olympic medal, despite all the setbacks, including the recent return of his back pain. “It’s an Olympic year; it’s in Canada. I have every reason to keep going,” says Benshoof. It’s what he knows best, and, slider through and through, he can’t stop himself.

St. Paul-based Jay Weiner will be covering his eighth Winter Olympics in Vancouver; he’s covered seven Summer Games, too. This time he’ll be working as a reporter and researcher for NBC.