He suddenly cared too much. That's the darnedest thing about luge. The more you care, the more tension seeps into your muscles. And, bizarrely, the sled feels that tension and slides less quickly, responds more stiffly. Duncan Kennedy, the 24-year-old medal favorite from Lake Placid, N.Y., suddenly cared too much to win.
That's simplistic, of course. You cannot finish second in the six-race World Cup circuit, as Kennedy did this season, without caring a whole lot about everything that makes a sled go fast—edges, personal conditioning, track lines, aerodynamics, the works. Kennedy was relatively free of pressure in the first five World Cup races of the season, in which he shot to the top of the standings with two firsts, two seconds and a third. He was a luger on a roll—loose, literally carefree. However, in the last World Cup race, in Calgary on Jan. 24, he discovered that his competitors saw him as the man to beat.
"One reason Duncan is an outstanding slider," said U.S. coach Wolfgang Schadler, "is that he never cared about what people said about him. But in Calgary he was so close to being Number One in the World Cup. So he tried to show the world what he can do. And this was part of the problem, because then you don't do it for yourself anymore. You want to do it for everyone else."
Kennedy's goal was to win the overall World Cup, which no U.S. luger had ever done. The dream was shattered in Calgary, where Kennedy's 12th-place finish allowed Austria's Markus Prock to pass him in the standings by one point. The repercussions affected Kennedy's preparations for Albertville. "I tend to overreact," Kennedy said. "After Calgary I was extremely defeated mentally."
Kennedy was never able to get a feel for the Olympic track at La Plagne. "Luge is all feeling." he said. "I'd be a half-second behind the leaders in my training runs and wouldn't know where the time went." The more frustrated he got, the tighter he became, and the worse he slid. Privately, he doubted he would crack the top 10.
On Sunday, though, in the first of the four runs that counted, Kennedy finished sixth. But in his second run he skidded on the fifth and 13th turns and wound up 12th, which dropped him to 10th overall. Out of contention. After four runs, that's where he remained—10th—1.489 seconds behind the eventual winner, Germany's Georg Hackl, who was the silver medalist at the '88 Olympics and is a two-time overall World Cup champion. Prock took the silver, and his Austrian teammate Markus Schmidt got the bronze.
Kennedy's 10th place was the highest ever for an American man. Still, he was disappointed. "I expected a medal," he said. "It was a bad race. The Olympics have been kind of a curse to me. It's not necessarily nerves. Errors just happen."
You could sense a weight had been lifted from his shoulders, the weight of his own, and of others', expectations—a weight that all the athletes in these Games must deal with. Then Kennedy glanced at his brother Carter and to the snow-covered Alps in the distance. "I'm ready to go snowboarding." he said.