Three years ago, U.S. luger Tony Benshoof was sliding nowhere.
Teammate Adam Heidt had posted a stunning fourth-place finish at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games _ the best-ever in singles for the U.S. since luge became an Olympic sport in 1964 _ while Benshoof staggered home in 17th after a disastrous first run in his first Olympic appearance.
Despite his success, Heidt raced only one more World Cup season, finishing ninth overall in 2002-03 and a career-best fourth at the World Championships before retiring in May.
Suddenly, Benshoof was the main man. It was a blessing in disguise.
``I was the only one left,'' said Benshoof, 29, who lives in the Minneapolis suburb of White Bear Lake. ``I didn't have anyone to compare my times against. Until we actually started racing, I could only focus on sliding and not the finish time because there was nothing to compare it to. I was forced to think about sliding and nothing else.''
Benshoof started in the sport at age 12 after attending a slider search program in Minneapolis. He seemed a perfect fit for luge: Laid-back but with a competitive edge. But even after more than a decade on the ice, his main claim to fame was a listing in the 2002 Guinness World Records Book for the fastest recorded luge speed _ 86.6 mph on Oct. 16, 2001.
That all changed at the World Cup opener in November 2003. He was second after the first run at Sigulda, Latvia, only two-thousandths of a second behind Olympic champion Armin Zoeggeler of Italy. Although he fell back to seventh in that race, Benshoof's struggle was over.
``Right then and there it all came together,'' said Benshoof, a four-time national luge champion.
At the next World Cup stop in Altenberg, Germany, Benshoof broke the track record on his first run and finished third behind Zoeggeler. He won eight medals last year _ two gold, one silver, and five bronze _ and finished fourth in the World Cup standings.
``It's an interesting dynamic. I would not have expected Adam's retirement to become the trigger for Tony. Maybe he was content to be in Adam's shadow,'' said Ron Rossi, executive director of USA Luge. ``He taught me a lesson in terms of patience. After so many years, I wondered if it would ever click. He was always fast but never consistent. He's found the consistency.''
Benshoof, 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds, credits longtime team head coach Wolfgang Schadler for his emergence.
``The biggest factor is Wolfie,'' Benshoof said. ``He basically said to just slide and not think about the finish times. I'm more motivated than I have been in years past, and I've been working harder. I think I'm growing as a slider. Each year I'm getting better and better.''
Russia's Albert Demtschenko won the World Cup men's singles crown this year with 629 points, just ahead of German great Georg Hackl. Benshoof was sixth with 474 points, just 13 points out of a tie for third.
Entering this weekend's World Championships on the Olympic track in Park City, Utah, Benshoof has 18 international medals overall. He's at the top of his game, having beaten both Hackl and Zoeggeler in a World Cup team event.
``I've earned a greater level of respect among some of the competitors, especially within the men's division,'' Benshoof said. ``It began happening last year, to an extent, but this year it's definitely more magnified. Last year was a great year for me, but by having a great year this year, it kind of solidified my position as being among the top sliders.
``It's easy to be in the top 15, but you want to be in the top five. You have to be. And once you're there, your confidence builds,'' Benshoof said. ``And there's definitely a different feel. It's been kind of neat being one of the top five instead of looking at that group and wishing you were there.''