Kate Hansen

BYU's Kate Hansen takes "weird" luge track from SoCal to Sochi

2014-02-06T10:00:00Z 2014-02-10T14:02:17Z BYU's Kate Hansen takes "weird" luge track from SoCal to SochiJason Franchuk - Daily Herald Daily Herald
February 06, 2014 10:00 am  • 

It came down to one day. To get through it, Kate Hansen played a mind game.

Stop caring so much.

She had trained for years. The sport of luge, which is certainly more about love than money to stay involved, took the BYU student all over the world. It had also left her with a broken back and broken foot over the years. The sport had built her up, but also broken her down.

Now, a couple of December runs were left in Park City and a first Olympics was on the line...

"I just wanted the day to end. I just wanted to throw up, know my fate," Hansen said. "I think mentally I was just done. Ready to go home. Ready to see my parents."

Translation: the mental ploy worked, and she's in Sochi as you read this.

Hansen has gone from a surfer girl and skateboarder, who would careen on wheels along the hilly suburban Los Angeles neighborhood where she was raised, all the way to becoming a potential medalist in Russia who could become an American fan favorite.

Hansen downplays this possibility, though recent results would beg to differ.

And look how far the 21-year-old has come already. Granted, it's been about a dozen years in the making in one of the wildest and most dangerous winter Olympics sports around. A sport where, as Hansen points out, "if you breathe wrong you can lose." Or worse.

Competitors are on their backs, on a sled as that is steered by feet and shoulders. Hansen said most observers compare it to Formula One car racing. An acute ability to know how much to steer is a must. Knowing how to navigate even the most subtle of icy turns, before danger accelerates, is partly innate but also quite a necessary skill.

But luge, despite not standing during it, is also like skateboarding or surfing — two loves Hansen had at age 10 when her parents took her to a U.S. national luge organization tryout. Recruiting events are held all around the country, including on occasion Salt Lake City, using boards that are on wheels.

An event came to Southern California, and by the next year she was getting her first taste of Utah, where she also currently has a couple of siblings connected to BYU.

"Weird, right?" Hansen said, shaking her head. "Long Beach to this."

At first, it was a hobby. This is now Hansen's seventh year on the World Cup circuit.

Yes, she's considered leaving behind the sport, its training and travel demands several times. Hurrying up to the inevitable end.

"It's not like I have expected to be a professional luger," said Hansen.

She has kept her participation fairly quiet. Doesn't brag about it in class, or rarely talks about it except with very close friends.

Back home, staying involved became a family debate.

"The ultimate goal is to raise a nice kid who can function, and that's all we cared about," her father, John, told the Los Angeles Times. "I remember at one point, one dad asked me if she could ever make the Olympics, and I was like, 'Well, uh, theoretically.' "

But almost like hitting a hot hand or two at a blackjack table, things kept happening — good and bad — to keep her invested and hooked.

At 15, not long after the family figured she'd do one more event and call it a career, Hansen became the youngest luger to win a junior world championship.

Couldn't stop then.

Or at age 16. She broke her back on a run in Vancouver. The same gnarly track that claimed the life of a male competitor at those Olympics four years ago.

Hansen barely missed out on those games, and refused to exit on such a close call: a lost race-off in the final qualification event leading up to Canada.

Time passed. Hansen was still all-in. Until she nearly wasn't.

She almost didn't have any choice but to finally get off the sled. Two months before these most recent, key December races, she broke her foot.

"I thought it was a joke," Hansen said.

On her home track, Park City, she steered in a way that left her more vulnerable than ever before. One curve, then a transition, then a big right-hand turn then a surge to the left. Trouble at the worst possible time.

"I cried and cried," Hansen said. "I had just won nationals. Now, I couldn't even walk. I went too high up the wall and flipped. Then I slammed down into the short wall."

She says the injured foot was way harder to handle, compared to the back break, because of how close it came to the U.S. trial races. There wasn't nearly as much time to recover.

Those qualification races are really a bigger deal than the Olympics to most athletes, and more pressure packed. Racing to get there, and racing amid the five rings, are two totally different objectives.

Hansen allowed herself one full night to cry, get all of the negativity out. Her pinky toe busted on a Wednesday. By Friday, she was on the ice even when her swollen foot and cast wouldn't allow her to zip a boot entirely.

"I didn't actually think I would pull it off," Hansen said.

She beamed while recalling that story, and also Dec. 13 — nomination day when 40 friends and family watched her thrive in Park City.

Hansen is talkative, and not just to a curious reporter. At Legends Grille, on the BYU campus, she had to pause several times to greet friends that hadn't seen her since she became a bona fide Olympian. She has not been attending BYU classes this year as she traveled everywhere from Latvia to Germany, Russia to Norway, trying to reach this point.

But she was granted access to work out at BYU's training facilities. While nice and helpful, she said, most other Cougar athletes "don't understand what I'm doing, or what my sport is."

Fine with her.

Sometimes she's wondered herself, along the way. She laments how luge took away some "normal" parts of life. She missed surfing often because she was on another continent, or training in Lake Placid, N.Y. She missed homecoming, among other rites of being a teenager. She grew weary of teachers and students thinking she was "always just on vacation."

It sure seemed cruel to have a little toe kick her to the curb. Every time she thought about the Olympics the last two years, she'd do an extra workout set.

Why stick with it beyond some agonizing setbacks? As Hansen knew all along, it's not like luge was a career.

"That's a good question," Hansen said, taking her longest pause in a 45-minute interview.

"I think it just turned into a thing where, like, I put so much effort into it that I just couldn't stop. Every year, I had something happen to me. The first year on team, I won a really big race — I was thinking I can't quit now; I might actually be really good at this. The next year, I broke my back at Vancouver...I can't end on a low like this, so I just kept going. Every year there's just been something. When I missed the last Olympics, it became 'I have to do this.' It's a thing — I have to see if I can make this happen. The past four years I've been working harder than I ever thought."

It's been about more than hard work. Hansen, with the help of her parents who own a Mexican restaurant in La Canada, have held a few fundraisers to help keep the dream alive. That's common for Olympic hopefuls to raise cash.

She cautioned that this is about the experience, not necessarily reaching the medal podium.

"It's not realistic. I mean I'm going to try," Hansen said when asked if the goal was gold.

But playing the mental game during trials may have brought out an even fiercer confidence.

With nothing to lose from here on out, she's winning big these days.

Hansen became the first American to win a major singles luge competition since 2009 (and a World Cup event since 1997) when she took the victory in Sigulda, Latvia, last month.

Hansen told reporters afterward the victory was "a great surprise."

It could take some of the surprise out of a high finish in Sochi, as her first run will come Feb. 10.

The World Cup win will give her a better starting position in the Olympics, which means she has an outside chance to become the first American in Olympic history to earn a medal in women's luge.

The game has started again, which isn't such a bad one to play.

"I think I just need to count my blessings," Hansen said. "Take it in stride."

Daily Herald sportswriter Jason Franchuk can be reached at 801-344-2555 or jfranchuk@heraldextra.com. Twitter: @harkthefranchuk

jared-lloyd
-- Daily Herald sports editor Jared Lloyd is also the beat writer for the BYU football team, the columnist for the Cougar men’s basketball team and covers a variety of Utah Valley high school athletics. You can connect with him by email at jlloyd@heraldextra.com or by following him on Twitter at

Read more from  Jared Lloyd here.

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