Imagine seeing a skinny 10-year-old girl racing down a steep slope on her back on a long board – and that slope is a busy street in La Cañada, CA.
That’s how Olympic luger and World Cup Champion Kate Hansen got her “feet wet” in the sport in which she careens down an ice track at upwards of 80 mph.
From cruising down Alta Canyada Boulevard, she moved to a concrete racetrack in Long Beach where she qualified for development training in Lake Placid, NY. Within a year, this young girl from La Cañada was training year-round, balancing her school work and still managing to play other sports, like basketball, volleyball and softball, which is where we met Kate – behind home plate.
She and our daughter Emily played softball together from the ages of 10 ‘til 15, and are still great friends to this day. I caught up with her parents, John and Kathie Hansen (and Kate via email) a few Saturdays ago, just hours after Kate won the gold at the World Cup in Latvia. I asked Kathie and John why Kate ultimately turned in her catcher’s mitt for a sled.
After posting some fast race times at the Lake Placid training camp, Kate realized she had a knack for “sliding,” they said. While it was difficult traveling to Park City, Utah, several times a month to train, the Hansens invested time and energy into Kate’s luge journey.
John elaborated on Kate’s emerging luge career, explaining that luge is a very intuitive sport, learning to steer the sled, how to adjust your weight and move your feet to maximize speed. Trainers want kids to start before age 12 to achieve the best results, he said.
Kate capitalized on her intuitiveness and earned an invitation to tour Europe with the Jr. National Team. A young Kate excitedly asked, “Can I go, can I go?”
As only a wise mom would say, Kathie replied, “Under three conditions. Keep your grades up, keep your values and morals and complete your [Mormon] seminary certificate.” Kate wanted to attend Brigham Young University (BYU) after graduation, and needed that certificate to apply. And in true Kate form, she accomplished all three, Kathie said.
While touring in Europe, Kate found herself either winning or crashing, and at Christmas that year, John said it was time to re-evaluate her future.
“I laid out a long piece of butcher paper and plotted out the next ten years. I asked Kate where she thought luge would take her. It doesn’t offer college scholarships or many coaching opportunities. She said, ‘Yeah, there’s not a lot of future in this. I want to finish the European tour, then I’m done.’”
She returned to Europe and just kept winning, John said. The coaches pulled her up to race in the Jr. World Championship and at 15 years old, brought home the gold medal. She was only the fourth American young woman to ever win it, and the second from La Cañada – the other being Mary Ann Baribault, who went on to compete in the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan. “That fact makes La Cañada ‘luge capitol of the US!’” John laughed. “Well, that screwed up the butcher paper plans.”
Kate recalls the victory as her best luge memory. “When I became the youngest ever to win Jr. World Championship at age 15, [that is my best luge memory]. I was competing against 19-year-olds and I still had braces and should not have even been racing – I was too young. I [was] an awkward 15-year-old American who loved to dance before my runs. Afterwards, people knew my name and where I came from.”
Her back and forth life between La Cañada and Lake Placid continued her junior year in high school, when most of her friends were struggling with AP courses, SAT testing and term papers. Kate’s struggles were of a different nature. While in Whistler, Can-ada, she was tapped to compete with the senior team and she experienced a serious crash, cracking her helmet and was thought to have a concussion. The team flew to Innsbruck, Austria, and by the time they arrived, Kate could barely walk and complained of excruciating back pain. The team physicians took X-rays and determined Kate had a broken back. She flew home, dejected, but happy to have the love and support of her family and friends.
After a few months of rest and time to heal, Kate was ready to get back on the track. The 2010 Olympic Trials were in Lake Placid, a course she knew very well. Now 17, Kate continued to win, beating more seasoned athletes along the way. From Lake Placid, it was on to Whistler for the World Cup, where she won the first race. Kate found herself competing against teammate Megan Sweeney, someone Kate knew well. It came down to one final race in Lillehammer, Norway, where Megan beat Kate for the remaining spot on the 2010 U.S. Olympic Luge Team.
Kate came home to La Cañada feeling like she let everyone down, her parents said. It was the last day at La Cañada High School (LCHS) before winter break, and Kate returned to campus to hugs and cheers from the students. I happened to be on campus that day for the Christmas assembly, and witnessed the bittersweet scene for Kate.
John and Kathie recognized this foundation of support for Kate years ago, and they don’t underestimate the importance of her friends in keeping her spirits up. It can be very lonely on the training circuit, Kate said. Some of the toughest times for her were knowing she was missing out on the everyday things, like attending the high school assemblies, and especially missing school dances. Despite her long absences, Kate and her friends picked back up like she had never left, she said. One of Kate’s best memories was when she surprised everyone by showing up to her senior year homecoming dance. She suddenly appeared in our backyard where the pre-dance pictures were being taken. All of the girls began screaming and crying as she walked down our driveway.
It seemed Kate’s luge career was put on the back burner for the time being. She attended BYU in the fall of 2010 and initially tried to hide her “luging” from her new college buddies, wanting them to “like Kate for being Kate.” As Kathie tells it, “One day, a friend said ‘You have to own this. [Being a luger] is who you are.’” From then on, Kate let her luge persona out, and she once again immersed herself in luge and returned to Lake Placid for winter training.
John told Kate she wanted her to get more from her experience than “just speed.” He told her she needed to learn something about herself and be a good ambassador – a notion Kate fully embraced. He spoke of a time in Park City when a group of international lugers gathered at a café. All of the athletes walked in and shouted “Kate! Kate!” John asked one of the Italian male lugers why they had all gathered. “Kate invited us. Everyone knows Kate and everyone likes to be with her because she’s fun.”
Yes, Kate is fun. She plays her Ukulele to entertain the athletes during down times, and has become quite a prolific videographer. Recently, she made a Christmas video of the athletes lip-syncing to Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas” and even got Geroge Hackl, Olympian and World Champion luger, now the coach for Germany, to wink on camera. (I think the aforementioned assembly at LCHS could’ve been an inspiration for this production).
Here’s a link to the video: https://vimeo.com/83646459
Kate even learned German to better communicate with the women on the German team and got them to warm up to her.
She had one more setback before earning a spot on the Olympic team – in October, she broke her foot. Kate recalls the moment as her lowest time in luge.
“I thought my career had ended right then and there. It took every ounce of my being to come back from that and I’m still so proud and surprised I did.”
She continued to race with a splint on her foot – and won. When she arrived in Lillehammer the first week of January, she was still on crutches. She wasn’t allowed to bring her crutches to the track, because officials said it made the sport look “too easy.” That didn’t stop Kate – she hobbled on one foot to the track to compete.
Then in December, she made the 2014 U.S. Olympic Women’s Luge Team – with a broken foot. That was a miracle – a dream come true for the 21 year old. And to cap off that feat came the World Cup win on Jan. 22.
“It was surprising to say the least. The best finish I’ve ever had was a 4th place and never in my life did I think I would medal in a World Cup. It felt really great, though, to lay down a track record and to know that on that day, I was the fastest in the world,” Kate said.
Sounds just like Kate – upbeat and excited, yet modest. Or as John said, “She’s confident, but humble.”
With all of the triumphs and challenges Kate has faced over the years, I wondered who inspires her to keep going. Without hesitation, Kathie and John responded “herself.”
“Kate’s already accomplished and achieved more than we ever imagined,” John said.
“We’ve always told her, she can stop anytime. She can come home at anytime,” Kathie added.
I asked Kate if she agreed with her parents.
“I have heroes that I look up to so much, but as far as who keeps me going? Yeah, I think they are right. Not because I think I’m awesome, but because my situation is so unique, and I don’t know of anyone who has gone before me on this same road. I’m paving my own way as far as being a California girl in a winter sport, staying enrolled [at BYU] as a traveling athlete, and not living at the Olympic Training Center year round. I feel so alone in all this that there really is no one who I can look to to keep going. So yes, I guess it would be me,” Kate said.
The Hansen family has traveled to Sochi for the trip – or slide – of a lifetime. I’m sure Kate knows she has thousands of fans back home in La Cañada, BYU and all of the athletes with whom she’s competed over the years. As her grandmother said, “Kate collects friends.”
Yes she does, and I expect, Kate wouldn’t mind collecting a few medals as well, but that humble side of her comes out when asked about her goals at the Olympics. “My number one goal is to not make a fool out of myself. I would love to post a top ten finish, if the stars align I may be able to throw a top five finish, but I don’t want to expect anything. I just want to enjoy the ride,” she said.
“I never grew up wanting to be a professional sledder. I’m a California girl who loves to surf and I would never have imagined relocating my life to the snow. It was against all odds, but I accepted the challenge and I’m grateful the stars aligned for me.”
So a luger from sunny Southern California? Perhaps it’s not such a far-flung notion. Let’s all rally around our own Sochi sweetheart, because that’s who she truly is.
Kate penned this prophetic message when she was in fourth grade.
K – Kinetic in soccer and football.
A – Absolutely going to be famous (maybe)
T – Tackles my dog and people sometimes.
E – Eager to play all the time
“When I grow up I would want to be a couple of things like a skier, a soccer player, or rollerblader. But when you want to be someone, you sometimes don’t get to be what you want.
What I do in my spare time is long-board or play outside. When I long-board I sometimes do skeleton on my driveway and time myself.”
Here’s to an awesome time, Kate.