Olympics: Locals just miss in luge, snowboard

But luger Huerbin, plus speedskaters and others look ahead to 2014

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The pipeline from Pittsburgh to Vancouver for these Winter Olympics is limited to six NHL players: Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury, Sergei Gonchar and Brooks Orpik of the Penguins, plus Upper St. Clair native Ryan Malone of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

But the city also came close -- painfully close, from the athletes' perspective -- to being represented in luge and snowboarding.

Right. Luge and snowboarding.

Robby Huerbin of Ross Township was among USA Luge's top competitors through 2009, including a victory in his final qualifying run Nov. 6 in Park City, Utah, but a cumulative points system kept him off the team. And he knew it that day.

Lynn Ott of Sewickley was in similar position with U.S. Snowboarding, but her final event Nov. 13 in Copper, Colo., was beset with misfortune, and she was finished.

Post-Gazette at the Olympics

Sports writer Dejan Kovacevic's continuous coverage of the Vancouver Olympics begins later this week:

Today: Pittsburgh

The local participants, apart from the Penguins, also are in hockey: Ryan Malone of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Upper St. Clair with the men, and Brianne McLaughlin of Robert Morris with the women. Two others, in luge and snowboarding, came painfully close.

Thursday: United States

Skiier Lindsey Vonn, speedskater Apolo Anton Ohno and snowboarder Shaun White are among the top 10 American faces to watch.

Friday: Canada

From the Pacific Northwest, a look at what the Games mean to one of North America's most eye-pleasing cities, as well as the nation as a whole.

Saturday: The World

Eighty-nine nations, from Albania to Venezuela, march into BC Place for the opening ceremonies of the XXI Winter Olympics.

ONLINE: The newest sports page on post-gazette.com includes news, results and athletes biographies of all U.S. athletes.

BLOG: Kovacevic reports regularly from Vancouver and Whistler, British Columbia.

Ask either about the satisfaction of coming close to what would have been a first Olympics, and each will express nothing of the kind.

"To me, it wasn't satisfying at all to come so close because, like most serious athletes, I'm a competitor," Huerbin said. "I'd trained all this time and missed my chance. It's a very disappointing feeling."

"I'm planning on trying to avoid anything that has to do with the Olympics," Ott said.

Huerbin, 19, had three qualifying races, and the first two at his training track in Lake Placid, N.Y., went poorly. Then, in the one at Park City, he crashed on his first run. He rebounded with two strong runs, and the format for that race -- only the best two runs count -- gave him the victory by a tenth of a second. But the result still left him off the Olympic roster, and he was dispatched to the junior team.

"That day, things finally went better," Huerbin said. "But it wasn't enough."

Huerbin first tried his sport at age 12 during one of USA Luge's traveling exhibits outside Philadelphia -- similar to the ones that have visited McKeesport in recent years -- and never let go. All through his time at North Hills High School and now at Penn State, he has arranged to take classes around a demanding schedule that requires him to accompany lugers across the globe.

In his most recent junior international race, Dec. 12, at Paranonovo, Russia, Huerbin took bronze. That track will be used for the 2014 Olympics in Sochi and, to hear Huerbin, he already has begun the long slide to those Games.

"Right now, my goal is to travel with the junior team and work on my overall points position," he said. "I've never been on top of the circuit at a race, but I'll always be up there. This year, I'd like to show that even more with a podium finish in the overall points race."

His focus these days is on the running start.

"You need to be explosive, and I am strong enough and my form is good, but my muscles aren't the type that I need. And I just don't have the experience I need yet. Doing the sport for eight years isn't enough when you look at athletes who have been doing it longer than I've been alive."

Ott had been making an improbable run at age 42, going against X-Games-generation snowboarders two decades younger. But she entered 2009 as one of 37 men and women vying for 18 spots and, in particular, one of three women vying for a single spot in her alpine discipline.

Few in the sport have Ott's experience, as she has ranked among her sport's top five women for her entire 15-year career, as well as a two-time North American champion, this despite injuries ranging from a broken ankle to a pelvis broken in four places. But the only member of this team with Olympic experience in the alpine was Boston's Michelle Gorgone, and she wound up keeping her spot.

It did not help Ott that she had difficulty raising funds for practice runs, had to pay for a new private coach from Slovenia late in the year, and then was put down by the terribly unlucky international finale in Colorado: She finished ninth after, as she described it, "breaking a board at one race, my bindings at another and finally my boot."

"I just didn't have the finances to deal with it all, and I just missed out," she said.

Ott was born in Pittsburgh and moved "all over the area" before attending Sewickley Academy. The family moved to Bend, Ore., when she was 14, and she picked up snowboarding on the many peaks of the Pacific Northwest.

At Ott's age, another run at the Olympics seems highly unlikely, which surely helps explain some of her disappointment. A friend recently asked if she might be interested in being an NBC analyst for her sport, but that will not happen, either, for a different reason.

"Just having a rough time," she said.

From the colleges

Two athletes from the region's colleges will represent the U.S. in Vancouver: Brianne McLaughlin, former goaltender for Robert Morris University, made the women's hockey team. And Eric Bernotas of West Virginia University will make a second trip the Olympics with the U.S. skeleton team.

McLaughlin, 22, is from Sheffield Village, Ohio, and spent four years with the Colonials, graduating last year with an NCAA-record 3,809 career saves. She is the first member of the fledgling Division I women's program to reach the Olympics, where she will be one of two backups to Jessie Vitter, the goaltender who led the U.S. to World Championship titles the past two years.

Bernotas, 38, is from Avondale, Pa., near York, and graduated from West Virginia in 1994. He placed sixth in the skeleton -- a one-man sled in which the rider is face down on a bobsled track, using only his shoulders and legs to steer -- at Turin, Italy, in 2006.

Into the future

Given the lack of non-traditional winter venues in the Pittsburgh region, the number of Olympians cannot be expected to grow much in the future. But some possibilities already are on the horizon for Russia 2014...

Cole and John-Henry Kreuger, brothers at Peters Township High School, are rising short-track speedskaters in Robert Morris' club program. They made up half of the national four-man U.S. team sent to Taiwan for the world junior championships last month -- Cole placed 10th -- and, in the junior nationals late last year, Cole placed second, John-Henry fourth.

Maddie Watton, a 2009 graduate of Franklin Regional High School also with the Robert Morris speedskating club, participated in the U.S. Olympic trials in September but did not advance beyond the first round.

Katie Wyble, from Franklin Regional and now at Seton Hill University, and partner Justin Morrow, also at Seton Hill, placed 12th in ice dancing at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships last month in Spokane, Wash. They have skated together for three years in an event that requires extensive experience.

Another candidate is in the NHL ranks: R.J. Umberger, a Plum native who joined Malone among the groundbreakers for hockey players born and trained here, has 19 goals as a center for the Columbus Blue Jackets. At age 27, he still would be of age for the U.S. team for Sochi, but that is assuming the NHL participates.

Dejan Kovacevic: dkovacevic@post-gazette.com . Find more at our Dejan Kovacevic at the Olympics blog . First Published February 10, 2010 5:00 AM


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