There really is nary a moment to ponder the romanticism of it all — the danger, the glory, the adrenaline.
The slightest of wrong moves has the potential to produce the most phenomenal of falls.
“If you think, then you’re on your face,” Kate Hansen says.
For more than a decade, Hansen, very much the embodiment of a California girl, has devoted her desire, determination, body, mind and soul to luge, speeding down tracks from Utah to Russia.
Six runs of practice and then two runs to glory.
“Beginning of the week, I’m definitely scared because it’s a new track,” says Hansen of the progression of taking six practice runs before two competition runs.
“Once racing comes, you’re ready to go. Nothing else matters, all that matters is making it down that track — I’m leaving it all on the ice.”
Across the globe, with her back on a sled, her feet forward and her aspirations high, Hansen has dreamed full speed ahead.
“We go up to speeds of 80 miles an hour. It’s just you and the sled. If you just turn your head wrong, you’ll hit a wall. It’s all about finesse and flow,” says the 2010 La Cañada High graduate and lifelong La Cañada Flintridge resident. “It’s just hard to keep your cool when you feel like you have rocket boosters coming out of you.”
Therein lies a sample size of the high-speed world in which Hansen has ascended, realizing the ultimate goal of becoming an United States Olympian in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
Still just a sophomore at Brigham Young University and only 21, at first glance, it might not seem as though it’s been a long nor arduous road. But the majority of Hansen’s life has been spent with a sled behind her and promise in front.
It has been a run filled with curves that have taken her through peaks and valleys, the struggle to hold tight to the normality of being a teenager at La Cañada High while spending the majority of her time training and racing in different states and countries.
There has been heartache and bone breaks, tears of joy, sadness and, most recently, complete and utter relief.
Perhaps most amazingly, she has carried through it all with a smile. And it would seem it is that affection for the sport that has carried her now onto the world’s grandest stage.
“This is 10 years of hard work in the making,” says Tamar Hill, who taught Hansen at La Cañada and was also her basketball coach for three seasons. “How many people can you say that actually worked that hard and are able to fulfill their dreams? It’s really impressive. I feel blessed that I’ve gotten to know her. I’m glad she decided to stick with it and persevere.”
In a journey that began in the foothills of La Cañada and has now arrived in its destination of Sochi, the true genesis of Kate Hansen, Team USA luger, begins in Long Beach.
Just 10 years old, Hansen and her dad John, after having talked to his friend, made the trek south for a luge recruitment clinic.
“My dad and I went down there and the rest is history,” Hansen says.
As the story goes, Hansen never shied from sports. She skateboarded and surfed, she played basketball and volleyball, softball and track. You name it, she played it, it seems.
“For Kate, we didn’t have to push the sports,” John says. “Our efforts weren’t in sports, we just got her to the field.”
Whatever the field or arena or track, it seems as if her athletic talents knew no bounds.
“It didn’t really matter what sport: luge found her,” says Shannon O’Hara, Hansen’s close friend and a La Cañada High graduate, “she could’ve excelled in any sport, I’m confident.”
Not long after Hansen was introduced to luge, she was traveling to Park City, Utah twice a month on weekends, John and wife Kathie alternating accompanying her to one of two luge tracks in the United States — the other is in Lake Placid, New York.
California’s hardly a luge hotbed, and others in Hansen’s age group in the program were training three times as often as her, John says, but it didn’t matter.
“She really liked it and she had a proclivity with it,” John says. “So she kept at it and her coach liked what he saw.”
It also gave Kate what just about every elementary-aged kid desires most.
“If there’s a way to miss some school, when you’re 10 or 11, that’s pretty much the biggest thing,” Kate says.
But as she entered high school, as training and competition would take her out of school more and more often, and farther and farther away, she did everything possible to stay a Spartan.
“I definitely didn’t take for granted when I was able to be in class,” she says. “I really wanted to graduate with my class.”
It certainly wasn’t without its difficulties, and some hesitance, especially when your excuse for missing class after class is because you’re training in a sport many haven’t heard of.
“A lot of people didn’t know what luge was. They just thought I was on vacation all the time,” she says. “Most of my teenage hood, you could say, took place on the road — 90% out of America.”
Perhaps it’s only fitting that someone who finds success in less than 90 seconds on a luge track did all she could in the short time provided.
“She’d be gone and all of a sudden I’d get a random call and she’d be like, ‘I’m back, let’s hang out,’” O’Hara recalls. “She would always make the most of her time back home.”
“She would come home and be a teenager; be a kid.”
At one point or another, one year or another, Hansen donned a Spartans volleyball, softball or basketball uniform. For three seasons she was on the varsity girls’ basketball squad.
“She was on the roster, but she was usually out of the country,” Hill jokes.
Still, Hansen’s time on the basketball team and in each of her other endeavors not only showcased an uncanny ability to cram as much as possible into the fleeting moments of her high school days, but to grasp tightly to the real world of being a high school kid while balancing her luge aspirations around the globe.
“I think being on the basketball team gave her a sense of being normal in an abnormal situation,” Hill says.
In one more example of just how spectacular a natural athlete she is, Hansen even tried track and field her senior year. And for an athlete who specialized in a sport in which you’re sliding on the icy ground, she showed she could jump pretty high, as well.
“It was pretty much one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever won,” Hansen says of claiming the Rio Hondo League high jump title.
But by that time, Hansen had already made the world of luge take notice.
All of 15 years and 243 days old, she became the youngest-ever U.S. junior luge world champion after her triumph in the 2008 Junior Luge World Championship.
“When I won Junior Worlds, it was actually my first year on the team,” Hansen recalls. “For myself, that was the big leagues. I was racing 20-year-olds and I still had braces on.”
Roughly two years later, 2009 and the lead-up to the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics came along.
Hansen wouldn’t be a part of them, though. She came dreadfully close, losing in a race-off and was then, suddenly, still four years away.
“Three girls for one spot. The cookie didn’t crumble my way,” Hansen recalls. “It was miserable.”
Never one to stay down long, Hansen returned to school and returned to normal — or at least what was normal for Kate Hansen.
“It’s weird thinking back on it, how well she handled it,” O’Hara says. “She jumped right back into school.”
Such it seems is simply the make-up of Kate Hansen.
Upon YouTube there’s myriad videos produced by KateHansen92, many of them music videos in which she’s crafted lugers from the United States and seemingly every other country to lip sync, dance or simply have fun.
“Kate is able to bring all types of people out of their comfort zone,” says USA luge sports program director Mark Grimmette, a former five-time US Olympian in luge with two of Team USA’s four medals to his credit. “She likes making music videos, it always amazes me who she is able to get to dance and sing in front of the camera.”
With Germany enjoying a verifiable dynasty in the sport of luge, Hansen took it upon herself to learn German.
She rocked the guitar at La Cañada High’s battle of the bands with her group Mañana’s Mañana, though she’s just as adept, if not more so, with the ukulele, leading to musician Ukulele Bartt writing her a song entitled “Go Kate go!”
“That’s who Kate is, she just brings people together,” mom Kathie says.
But in a cruel twist, friends become competitors in an Olympic year.
Thus, when Hansen finally realized a dream come true of clinching a spot on the Olympic team on a cool night in Park City, Utah in December of 2013, tears of relief flowed heavily as emotions were scattered for her and her family.
“When it happened, I had nothing left in me,” Kate says. “No words, no emotions. All I could do was just cry — it was just such an emotional journey.
“Honesty, when that moment happened, I was just grateful it was over. Trials had finished; I didn’t have to worry about my career ending every week.”
But for some longtime friends and close teammates, the opposite fate had befallen them.
“It was a tremendous relief. It had been a long, hard path,” John says. “There’s this elation, this relief and this sadness all in one place. It’s hard to describe.”
Nonetheless, Kate had reached the pinnacle of a sport that had seen her sacrifice time with family and friends, break her back during her junior year of high school and race with a broken foot leading up to her qualification to the Olympics.
Indeed, she has lived the life of a luger.
“I explain it to people all the time,” Hansen says. “I’m actually surprised when people do know what it is.”
It’s a sport unknown to many, dangerous at times and overlooked every year, seemingly, in which the Winter Olympics are not on the calendar.
“If you’re in the sport of luge for fame and money, you’re in the wrong sport,” says USA luge director of marketing and sponsorship Gordy Sheer, a three-time former Olympian. “You just don’t train in an Olympic year for an Olympic medal. It’s a big process of training to become a force.”
It’s a sport absent of an abundance of pomp and circumstance, hype and highlights.
It’s a sport Kate Hansen, a California kid if ever there was one, chose to chase upon snowy settings and fast tracks across the world. And she did it all with a smile curving her face.
“It’s the hardest sport I’ve ever played,” she says. “I just love the challenge of it.
“For us, you definitely do it for the love of the sport.”