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Austrian sisters speed to gold, silver

Chestnuts roasted over a La Plagne fire. Forty-degree sunshine was melting snow. There came a loud rumbling, as if a train were coming. Swooooosh! That was no train, no plane, no Superman. Just some Austrian superwoman, by the name of Neuner or Neuner, blurring past on a tiny sled called a luge.

Americans are about as familiar with luge as Mongolians are with baseball, but Dartmouth College pre-med student Cammy Myler has all but secretly been developing into a slider capable of sliding with the forever-dominant Europeans.

Winter Games began in 1924 at Chamonix, a few mighty French Alps to the north, and 68 years later American men and women still have zero Olympic medals in luge.

On Wednesday, an ailing and dizzy Myler finished fifth, highest ever by a Yank. The 22-year-old rubbed an uneasy stomach, admitting: "It's not elation I'm feeling, just some nausea from 48 hours with the flu bug, and mild disappointment from not winning a medal."

Cammy is ranked No. 2 in the current World Cup standings, but she couldn't keep up with Neuner, or with Neuner. Austrian sisters Doris and Angelika Neuner came to an icy Olympic trough on a Savoie mountaintop and deluged the world. Doris, 20, took the gold medal, and Angelika, 22, won silver for an unbeatable Innsbruck luge household. Susi Erdmann of Germany took home the bronze.

It's too bad daredevilish American kids aren't more exposed to luge. I doubt any red-blooded, pimple-battling hot-rodder could've stood beside the Olympic luge run Wednesday without getting the sled bug.

Few sports allow spectators such proximity. I stood within 18 inches of where the Neuners, Myler and 21 other Olympians were bulleting past at 70 miles an hour. It was like watching football from where the referee stands. I could've touched flying luges with both hands, if I'd wanted to lose both hands.

Zip, gone! Zip, gone!

It was like Amen Corner on steroids. You heard the rumble three seconds before the luger appeared. Then, like a Brett Hull slap shot, she sizzled by. Nobody can turn a neck fast enough to see them both coming and going. It's no sport for the queasy.

Lugers wear helmets and rubberized suits, and ride backside-down. Heads are raised just enough to see. Using spiked gloves, like something from Cher's leather closet, lugers flail arms to generate a start. They sail into curving, molded walls of ice, down a 1,250-yard refrigerated course that has 14 turns. A strong clocking is 47 seconds.

Being pigeon-toed helps; a luger wraps feet around the sled's nose. "You have remarkable control," Myler said. "It's like driving a really well-handling car at high speed on the Autobahn. But you don't have any breaks." As they bolted through the turn I was watching, I saw mainly feet and gritting teeth.

"There's no time to focus," said Neil Leifer, a renowned sports photographer for Time and Life magazines. "You writers have it easy; just find a dictionary and go. For me, this is like trying to snag a meteor on film."

Bonny Warner gained 15 minutes of fame in the 1988 Calgary Olympics, winding up sixth in luge. Now 29 and a United Airlines flight engineer, Warner took time off to compete in 1992 and finished 18th among 24 sleds.

"Retire?" she said, reflecting on an obvious media question. "Well, I can't keep luging until I'm 80, but I need time to think about whether to slide ahead in search of still another Olympics."

Myler, in contrast, promised "my best luge days are ahead, and I'm definitely planning on being in the Lillehammer (Norway) Olympics two years from now. From now until then, I'll be doing everything I can to make myself good enough to win America's first medal."

Myler will re-enroll as a geography/pre-med major at Dartmouth next month. "I've always been a voracious studier," said the resident of the Olympic village of Lake Placid, N.Y. "I'm fortunately less neurotic than in high school where I took too many courses, including two languages and a couple of sciences, and got crazy any time my grade average dropped below 95."

While on the World Cup luge trail in Europe, she spent November nights reading the unabridged version of Les Miserables. "Abridged is the chicken way," Myler said. "I love to read. I've got 1,000 books at home. I also love to luge, and I'm getting better at it all the time."