Skater girl finds success in winter sport
LOS ANGELES — I never saw her face. She was always moving too fast. I knew her only for her shiny helmet, blond ponytail, oversized basketball jersey and dumb guts.
She would fly past me on her skateboard as I drove up my hilly street in La Canada. She was sometimes on her back, usually in a crouch, always teetering on the edge. It was a narrow road, lined with thick trees, sometimes crowded with SUVs. She couldn't have been more than 12 years old. It was a miracle she didn't end up in my windshield.
I would like to say the bravery of the neighborhood skateboard scamp was inspiring. But the truth was, it was infuriating. For several months I considered contacting her parents and warning them of possible danger, but I could never figure out her name.
Imagine my surprise when, 10 years later, her parents contacted me.
It turns out, that anonymous rascal was Kate Hansen, a sweet kid who lived one block away and had been a baby sitter for my youngest daughter.
Her parents were contacting me because she had just been named to the 2014 U.S. Women's Olympic luge team.
"Here is a story you might find interesting..." wrote her father, John, in a Dec. 30 e-mail.
Interesting? A Southern California kid has parlayed screeching rides down Alta Canyada Road into sled runs in Sochi? A La Canada skater girl who once drove me crazy could soon be turning that childlike fearlessness into an Olympic medal?
I tracked down Kate, now 21, at a World Cup event in Latvia to interview her for this story. But the minute I heard her call me "Mr. Plaschke," I realized my first question would not be a question.
"You know, young lady, you're lucky I never called the police on you," I blurted out.
"I'm lucky a lot of people didn't call the police on me," she said.
The amazing story of Kate Hansen starts with Saturday, when it just got even better.
In a race in Latvia, Hansen became the first American in 17 years to win a World Cup gold medal. This will give her a better starting position in the upcoming Olympics, which means she has an outside chance to become the first American in Olympic history to earn a medal in women's luge.
"It has not hit me at all," she told reporters Saturday. "When I wake up tomorrow I'll be like, 'Whoa, what happened yesterday?'"
That refreshingly honest quote perfectly describes the ascent of a skater girl from the most unlikely of backgrounds to the strangest of peaks.
"Usually I don't introduce myself as a luger — I actually try to avoid the subject as much as possible," said Hansen with a laugh. "People either don't understand it or make fun of it. Some think I do 'Cool Runnings,' Others think I ride a plastic sled down a big snowy hill."
Hansen doesn't do bobsled. She doesn't do on-your-belly skeleton, the sport that most closely imitates recreational sledding. Luge is more dangerous than either of those. Competitors lie on their backs and steer with their feet and shoulders as the sled careens down an icy banked track at the sort of speeds normally done by cars flying down the 210 Freeway through La Canada.
"The speed and finesse of it, it makes it like an art form," said Hansen.
That's sort of the reasoning she once would give her parents when she would leave the house every day to ride her skateboard with cousin Andrew Bentz all through La Canada, a hilly and leafy suburb north of downtown Los Angeles. She would not only ride down busy streets on late afternoons, but would also ride on deserted thoroughfare Foothill Boulevard late at night, ending with a downhill rush into La Canada High.
"I can't deny it was us you saw going down that hill," said Hansen "It was skinny, it was intense, when I was on my back my ponytail would drag on the back of the board and turn black. But it was really fun."
When Kate was 10, her parents, John and Kathie, finally discovered a way to put those skateboard skills to good use. They heard about the U.S. national luge organization holding street tryouts for Southern California skater kids. They Googled the information, signed her up, and by the time she was 11, she was sliding in a developmental program on weekends in Park City, Utah.
"It looked cool but, honestly, initially, I just did it to get out of school," Kate said.
Her parents allowed her to do it for the adventure, never dreaming it would amount to anything other than a learning experience.
"The ultimate goal is to raise a nice kid who can function, and that's all we cared about," said her father, John, a real estate developer who is part owner of La Canada restaurant Los Gringos Locos. "I remember at one point, one dad asked me if she could ever make the Olympics, and I was like, 'Well, uh, theoretically.'"
She kept winning junior races and recording strong times, and by the time she was 15, she began traveling internationally with the U.S. junior national luge team. Still, for a family whose priorities were centered on keeping her current with her La Canada High schoolwork and her LDS religious studies, luge felt like a dead end.
They held a family meeting during her first Christmas home from touring with the program, and they wrote out the pros and cons of luging on a piece of butcher paper, and a decision was made.
"I remember saying, 'There are no luge scholarships, you can't coach it, it doesn't really go in the direction of college and family, so what is long-term value here?'" said John. "So she decided to finish the year and come home for good."
Yet within a few months, while still 15 and wearing braces, she became the youngest luger in history to win junior world championships.
"At this point she said, 'I can't stop now,'" said her mom, Kathie.
Thus the difficult journey of this sun-drenched stranger in a snow-filled land continued, Kate integrating into her new world with a simple charm. When the famed German lugers wouldn't speak to her, she learned German. When her teammates were uncertain of her California cool, she began bringing them together by making music videos that one can check out on YouTube. She even learned to play the ukulele.
"Kate brings a lot of energy to the team in a positive way," said Mark Grimmette, USA luge sport program director. "She helps to break down comfort barriers by getting teammates to sing and dance."
Beneath the laid-back, laughing exterior of this Brigham Young sophomore is a toughness that surfaced when she came back strong after breaking her back and foot. She actually won this year's national championship with her foot in a cast, eventually leading to an Olympic nomination cemented in Park City with her parents and three siblings together for the celebration. She finished a race, was handed an Olympic flag and dissolved into tears.
"Thinking about all that hard work in one moment, I literally had nothing left," she said. "All I could do was cry."
With her mix of raw emotion and playful enthusiasm, this L.A. girl could become one of NBC's Olympic stars. Before her race, she'll be the one dancing while wearing a Magic Johnson jersey, a Dodgers cap, and Lakers headphones. During the race, cameras could switch to Los Gringos Locos, where the walls contain two framed Kate Hansen posters adorned with signatures from local well-wishers. After the race, they can follow this icy athlete home to her favorite surfing spots.
Me, I'll be taking quiet drives along hilly streets, slowing for skateboarders.