For Nodar: Georgia’s luge family returns to the Olympics

FILE - The sled belonging to Georgia's Nodar Kumaritashvili is seen just after it crashed during a practice run for the men's luge event at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics in Whistler, British Columbia, Friday the 12th February 2010. Saba Kumaritashvili will compete in luge next month at the Beijing Olympics, 12 years after her cousin Nodar Kumaritashvili died in a training accident at the Vancouver Games.  (AP Photo/Michael Sohn, File)

FILE – The sled belonging to Georgia’s Nodar Kumaritashvili is seen just after it crashed during a practice run for the men’s luge event at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics in Whistler, British Columbia, Friday the 12th February 2010. Saba Kumaritashvili will compete in luge next month at the Beijing Olympics, 12 years after her cousin Nodar Kumaritashvili died in a training accident at the Vancouver Games. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn, File)

PA

Luge is Saba Kumaritashvili’s family business. His great-grandfather is credited with bringing the sport to their homeland, the former Soviet republic of Georgia, over half a century ago. His father leads the national federation, as his relatives have done for decades.

At home, his family is synonymous with skiing.

At the Olympics, his family is synonymous with sadness.

He qualified for the Beijing Games hoping to change that.

It’s been 12 years since his cousin, Nodar Kumaritashvili, died in a training accident at the Vancouver Games, a death that still haunts the sport, especially every four years when the Olympics are held and memories come flooding back. Nodar was 21 when he would have made his Olympic debut; Saba is now 21 and about to make her Olympic debut.

Simply put, Saba is sliding for his country. For her family. And for Nodar.

“Every generation of our family had at least one luge athlete, and now my father and I are carrying on that tradition and following in Nodar’s footsteps,” Saba Kumaritashvili said in an interview with The Associated Press. “Thinking about him is painful but also gives me strength.”

It’s that strength that brought him here, even though he knows some of his family members get nervous every time he takes the ice cream because of what happened to his cousin.

Nodar Kumaritashvili was killed on February 12, 2010 after losing control of his sled during a practice run hours before the official opening of the Vancouver Games. He would have raced the next day, becoming the first in his family to compete on the biggest sliding stage.

His cousin now has this chance.

“I am happy and proud to have the opportunity to represent my family and my country at these Olympics,” said Saba Kumaritashvili. “Now I feel responsible towards them, because they expect good results from me. It’s really a big motivation, so I will try to do my best for them.

That’s what Nodar Kumaritashvili was trying to do 12 years ago.

The accident happened at 10:50 a.m. on a Friday, with most people already turning their attention to the opening ceremony that was taking place that evening. The track in Whistler, Canada has 16 curves and Nodar Kumaritashvili seemed to lose control around turn 13. His 176-pound body was no match for the gravitational forces, which sent him caressing along the ice-covered walls of the track. The final impact with one of those walls knocked him off his sled and sent him flying across the track, his arms and legs flailing.

His body sailed over the track wall near the finish line, the back of his head hitting a metal pole outside the track. The rescuers joined him in a few seconds, in vain. He was pronounced dead after 59 minutes of resuscitation efforts, although a coroner’s report later revealed his head injuries were so traumatic he died instantly.

His last recorded speed was 89.4 mph (143.9 km/h), which was certainly the fastest of his career. Some of the best sliders in the world had said that week that the track was too fast and too dangerous; after Nodar Kumaritashvili’s death, Olympic officials made several changes, including starting competitors from a lower point on the track in an effort to reduce speed.

“I won’t forget every detail of that day, that’s for sure,” said Erin Hamlin, a former women’s luge world champion who represented the United States at the Vancouver Games. “And I don’t think any athlete who raced in Whistler will.”

German slider Felix Loch, who won gold in men’s luge at those Olympics, traveled to Georgia two months later and tearfully presented the Kumaritashvili family with his own gold medal – because Nodar’s death, in Loch’s words, changed the sport. There were other gifts: paintings, photos, books, even letters from some of the first responders who remain haunted that his life could not be saved. His gravestone in Georgia features a huge bronze sculpture of him on a sled, not far from where his real sled and the damaged helmet he wore on his last ride are on display.

Somehow, Saba was never deterred. The family, he decided, had unfinished Olympic business.

“I worked hard and believed in myself strongly,” he said. “Now I feel happy and satisfied to have achieved one of my goals. … I think that the goal and the dream of every athlete is to participate in the Olympic Games. Two years ago, I decided to achieve this goal. And here I am.”

He is one of nine Georgian athletes, and the only one from a sliding sport, to qualify for the Beijing Olympics.

The fact that Saba Kumaritashvili was able to endure family anguish while following her cousin’s path to the Olympics has drawn admiration from other sliders.

“He saw through the mist,” said former US luge athlete and Olympian Christian Niccum, who competed at the 2010 Games. “It was a terrible accident. An accident. These things happen in life and it’s awful, but we can either live with it in fear or learn from it and grow and move on, which is why I think it’s a great story.

The family’s relationship with luge is believed to date back to at least the early 1970s, when Aleko Kumaritashvili – “my great-grandfather laid the foundations of the sport”, Saba said – oversaw the construction of a short training track. Soviet officials helped build a more comprehensive track around 1973, and Aleko Kumaritashvili served as the country’s coach.

It has been part of the family composition ever since. Saba and Nodar took similar paths to the Olympics; both were introduced to the sport by their families as children, then got into international boardsports and did enough to qualify for the Games despite having no experience on World Cup circuits.

Saba insists he’s ready.

“I look at its history as what the Olympics are,” Niccum said. “That’s what life is. That’s what all the motivational stories are about. It is perseverance. Forgetting the past, past fears, past tragedies and looking to the future, not living in fear or letting anything slow you down.

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Naomi C. Amerson