US luger overcomes obstacles on Olympic odyssey
KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — Christian Niccum's odyssey to keep sliding inside the five Olympic rings has been like a trip down a luge track — harrowing, twisting, turning. Up one instant, down the next. Sometimes very painful.
Injuries and surgeries. Financial hardships. Leaning on his parents. Long periods away from his wife and kids.
Along the way, he nearly quit but changed his mind. He risked crippling himself to keep going fast, chasing a medal.
He's now about to make his last ride, one final shot.
This time, pain free.
"I want to leave the sport healthy," he said. "I want to leave like an Olympian."
Since competing at the Vancouver Games in 2010, Niccum, who began his luge career in singles, has undergone two back operations, torn his Achilles tendon and had to move his family into his parents' house to support a sliding addiction that began as a boy with a glide down a hill in a wheeled sled at summer camp.
It's been quite a trip for Niccum of Woodinville, Wash., who will compete with partner Jayson Terdiman in the doubles competition Wednesday. They're longer than a longshot in a race that figures to be dominated by two German teams: Tobias Wendl-Tobias Arlt and Toni Eggert-Sascha Benecken.
In his third Olympics, Niccum (pronounced NIC-come) could be down to two runs if he isn't chosen to participate in the new team event.
At 36 years old, the hour glass is nearly drained of sand.
"This is my 24th year doing the sport," he said, standing in the finish area of the Sanki Sliding Track following practice. "I love it. I've gotten to go down these tracks for so many years. I've always said just doing it one day I would be satisfied, let alone for 24 years. I'm definitely happy."
More important, he's healthy.
"I'm out of the pain," he said, balling his fists and raising his arms in a mini-celebration. "I feel better than I have my whole life."
Four years ago, Niccum slid in Whistler, British Columbia, with teammate Dan Joye despite searing pain caused by degenerative back disks. He could barely move as his back seized up before, during and after competition. It was during those games that he was approached by one of the U.S. team doctors who promised he could finally free Niccum from years of misery.
"He told me, 'I can fix you,'" Niccum said.
So Niccum and his wife, Bobbie Jo, packed up their three kids and went to Los Angeles, where six weeks of treatment and rehab brought some relief, but not enough. He had surgery. Then, a second.
As Christmas arrived in 2012, Niccum felt so good he decided to play basketball — and blew out his left Achilles, an injury he thought might end his career.
"I remember saying, 'I'm old. I'm so old,'" he said.
He trained hard to get back, and after missing the first eight World Cup events, he rejoined Terdiman for the event on the Sanki track last February.
This season, he's felt better than ever — except when he looks at the standings.
"Unfortunately," he said with a laugh, "our results have never been worse."
Niccum and Terdiman had one top 10 finish all season, ninth in Oberhof, Germany. It's been frustrating, but working to improve their equipment, the team arrived in Russia feeling positive. The U.S. hasn't won a doubles medal since taking a silver and bronze at Salt Lake City in 2002.
It's difficult for Niccum to talk about his struggles. He chokes up and fights back tears, knowing the sacrifices his family made for him. Soon, however, his days of globe-hopping will be over.
"I haven't set any plans on exactly what I'm going to do, but for sure I need to spend a lot of energy focusing on supporting my family," he said, his voice starting to crack. "They've supported me. They've been enabling this and helping me out to continue this. I'm going to have to work on branching off and doing what I can for them."
Niccum won't make predictions. He's been around luge long enough to know anything can happen on race day. But if the stars align just so, he and Terdiman could do something special. If not and there is no medal, Niccum has still triumphed.
"I saw a quote from (late distance runner) Steve Prefontaine before the '72 Olympics and he said, 'There's going to be 20 people in the Olympic final and hopefully I'm one of them there, and if I'm there, I've got a shot'," he said. "And that's how I'm looking at it. There are 20 people in our race and we're here."