KONIGSSEE, Germany — Imagine you are Georg Hackl, the most decorated luger ever, with five Olympic medals, three gold and two silver, plus three world championships. You are a winter sports icon in your native Germany — well off, content and famous. You live comfortably in the picturesque town of your birth in the Bavarian Alps with nothing left to prove as you approach your 40th birthday.
Yet despite offseason neck surgery that left you unable to lift a mug of your beloved weissbier to your lips, you risk limb (not to mention reputation) hurtling on your back down twisting chutes of ice topping 80 mph. For what?
"If you have a big task, it makes your life interesting, it gives it a bigger sense," says Hackl, gunning to become the first athlete to win a medal in six Winter Olympics in Torino next month. "I always told myself that I can relax when I am in the graveyard."
Less than two weeks ago, Hackl edged away from sports mortality once again. With his shot at a medal in the Feb. 10-26 Games increasingly in doubt after neck surgery six months ago and a season plagued by injuries, Hackl showed up at his backyard track in Konigssee for only his third World Cup event of 2005-06. He needed to do well to keep his Olympic hopes alive.
On his first run, he made a costly mistake heading into the straightaway, sliding sideways, wobbling and almost crashing. He steadied himself enough to place eighth — no disaster but hardly prime position for the podium.
When he took off on his second run, his start time — the first of four split measurements — was 3.418 seconds, almost a tenth of a second behind the leaders, an eternity for luge. The announced split time sent a groan through the crowd that had gathered to give local hero Hackl a celebratory send-off.
But as he settled into a supine position on his sled, his legendary ability to build the fastest piece of fiberglass and steel on the track, his superior driving technique and uncanny feel for the ice paid off. At each split, he carved away more time, accelerating into each turn as he sped toward the finish.
Even though his start time was the worst among all 30 competitors, he somehow managed to complete the fastest run of the day, moving to third behind World Cup points leader Armin Zoggeler of Italy and Tony Benshoof of the USA.
"That's a typical Hackl run," says Benshoof, a legitimate Torino medal threat. "He comes off the handles in last place, and by the fifth curve he's in the hunt. Pretty amazing."
A day later, Hackl was named to the German luge team and hopes to join the 10-member club of six-time Winter Olympians.
"On the first run I had quite a mistake," says the man nicknamed "Turbo Georg," whose quirky personality and fast-changing moods from dour to playful never seem to deter his unparalleled focus on the race. "The second run was pretty perfect. It was a good finish for my career in Konigssee."
His craft is all-consuming
At 39, Hackl's illustrious career is also coming to a close. Born close to the Konigssee track in Germany's small resort town of Berchtesgaden, about 90 miles from Munich, Hackl tried the sport at 11. He took to luge with the passion that has marked his athletic existence since.
"I knew I would do luge the first time I tried it," says Hackl, who used to spend his free time after school taking runs on the track overlooking the region's crystalline lake.
He loved tinkering with sleds and mechanical things. After an apprenticeship with a metalworker, he learned to build sleds as a teen. His technical wizardry is one of his enduring strengths in a sport where equipment is paramount.
He still spends "many, many, many" hours building his sleds at home or at the national training center in Berchtesgaden — an anomaly in a sport where most lugers do little more than make minor modifications.
His maniacal devotion to his craft paid dividends when, as a 21-year-old in the 1988 Calgary Games, Hackl won silver. He proceeded to win gold in Albertville, Lillehammer and Nagano and bookended that trio with another silver in Salt Lake City. He lost there to Zoggeler but became the first luger to win medals in five consecutive Games.
"He is the Godfather of luge," the 30-year-old Benshoof says.
In the VIP tent before the Jan. 7 Konigssee race, Hackl tries to explain what motivates him after so much success. It's tough because of the constant assault from well-wishers and autograph-seekers, not to mention the requisite glad-handing required of politicians.
Hackl ran and was elected to the district government in Berchtesgaden in 2002 on name recognition alone but says he has no larger political aspirations.
"It's hard to explain, but that's my life," says Hackl, who at 5-7 and 175 is short, soft and stout; most lugers are tall and muscular. "I like the work on me, on myself, on my sled and the challenge."
Mind games rival talent
Those who know him say that even though he married his longtime girlfriend Margit Datzmann in 1999 (they recently separated), his first love has always been luge.
"He lives the sport," says longtime friend and German national team coach Thomas Schwab, a 1988 medal winner in Calgary. Or as Nagano gold medalist and current World Cup points leader Silke Kraushaar of Germany says, "There is nothing else in his life, only luge."
A technical whiz, Hackl has a knack for constructing the best sleds, rarely makes mistakes and never cracks under pressure.
"He has a tough mind," says Russian Albert Demtchenko, tied with Benshoof for second place in the men's singles World Cup standings.
"I would never count Hackl out of any race," U.S. Luge team manager Fred Zimny says.
He notes that the German hardly ever finished ahead of longtime rival Markus Prock of Austria in overall World Cup titles but beat him — three times for gold — in four consecutive Olympics: "In his entire career he's always stepped up for the Olympics."
Years of craning his neck and battling G-forces have taken a toll on Hackl's body. Back surgery in 1996 didn't stop his assault on the records. But at a breakfast last July, he lost the feeling in his left arm.
Surgery followed. Although the immediate problem was resolved, other nerves leading into Hackl's left arm were damaged in the process, affecting his ability to swipe at the ice with nail-laced gloves to create momentum at the start.
As little as three months ago, Hackl says he could not lift a beer to his mouth at the famed Munich celebration of Oktoberfest. He now says he is only at 60% to 70% strength in that arm.
Not everyone is convinced his injury is as serious as he says. No stranger to mind games, Hackl has often cried wolf about his age and health in Olympic years, only to storm to the gold medal. "It might be a crutch to get pressure off and make it a little easier heading into Torino," Benshoof says.
Hackl plans to become a coach when he is finished and take more trips in the U.S. West, which he says he "loves" and has toured three times for weeks on end.
"I'm looking forward to the second part of my life," he says.
Finish line of career in sight
Now that Hackl has finished his career in Konigssee, how will he wrap up his Olympic career?
"He is still one of the favorites," defending men's singles champion Zoggeler says.
Torino's Olympic track in Cesana Pariol presents a tricky blend of speed and curves, meaning those good at steering the sled — drivers — and those who excel in straightaways — gliders — can succeed. "On most parts of the track you don't see anything," Hackl says. "You have to feel the right direction."
Unlike World Cup events, the Olympics require four runs instead of two over consecutive days. That plays into Hackl's strengths: his imperviousness to pressure and his ability to make fine technical adjustments to his sled.
He vows Torino will be his last try at the Olympics, possibly his last race. To do well, he'll need decent starts: "If I have as fast start times as my competitors, I have very good chances to win. On the track, I am still among the very fastest."
He laughs when asked if, just maybe, he'll take one more run at Vancouver, site of the 2010 Winter Games. "It's a good question."
He is positioning to become a member of the International Olympic Committee's athletes' commission, which will be voted on by his peers in Torino. "I hope I will be there in another function, but not as an athlete," he says.
You're Georg Hackl. How can you be sure?