Winning at Luging
By Brittany Karford, Church Magazines
With less than 10 days left before Torino, 52-year-old Werner Hoeger was back home in Boise, Idaho, instead of being at one of only 16 luge tracks in the world.
Resting for a few days, the soon-to-be two-time Olympic athlete was at home reveling in what he misses most during his rigorous, worldwide training: family time. More specifically, he was catching up with an old competitorhis son Chris.
Between the two of them, Latter-day Saint father and son Werner and Chris have set a few Olympic records. For one, Werner was the oldest male competitor at the 2002 Salt Lake Olympic Games, and will be for the upcoming Torino games as well. They were also the first father and son to compete against each other in the same event at the same Olympics.
This year, however, Werner will be competing solo, as his beloved son and teammate has just returned from two years of missionary service in the Germany Berlin Mission.
Werner remembers the first time he heard his son declare his desire to serve a mission. In fact, it was during an interview with a French reporter after their success at the 2002 Winter Olympic games. Chris had finished 31st at the youthful age of 18.
“The reporter asked me: ‘You did quite welldo you expect to be a contender in four years?” Chris recalls. “And I said, ‘Well, not really.’ ” He explained that he would not be attending the 2006 games because he would be serving a mission for his church. The reporter's jaw dropped.
But for Chris, the decision was not hard.
“For me, that decision was already made,” he said. “I always wanted to go.”
His statement struck the reporter so strongly that the next day his film crew followed the Hoeger family around the Olympic Village in Salt Lake to examine their faith.
Now, four years later, Chris wouldn’t trade his mission experience for anything.
“Walking away from the sport of luge four years ago wasn’t that hard for me,” says Chris, who is now back attending Brigham Young University. He’s not sure if he will take up luge again, but the passion for the sport seems to run much deeper in his father. As Chris sees it, Olympic competition has been a lifelong dream for his fathera dream that also carried him into the Church.
Born in Venezuela, Werner Hoeger graduated from high school at the age of 16. As a skilled gymnast he was recruited by the BYU men's gymnastics team in 1970. He knew little English then, and less about the Church.
“I knew what young meant, but not Brigham,” Werner says. In seven years at BYU, he obtained his bachelor's, master's, and doctorate degrees and converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
All the while, Werner kept up his gymnastics training, returning home to be Venezuela's national gymnastics champion for six consecutive years. He had always dreamed of competing for Venezuela in the Olympics, but the team as a whole did not qualify, and Werner felt that both he and his country were left out.
That is, until 30 years later, when he spotted the Venezuelan flag on TV during the closing ceremonies of the Nagano Olympics in 1998. Bearing the flag was Iginia Boccalandro, a luger who lived in Salt Lake City. Without delay, Hoeger called her up and asked her how to get started.
“She told me to get to Salt Lake, and she asked me if I had any kids who could participate,” Werner recalls. Four Hoegers came down to a weeklong training event, and two were selected to go on in the sport: Werner, who was then just shy of 45, and his 13-year-old son, Chris.
In the following four years, the two traveled the world to train in Europe, Canada, and the United States. This time together is full of memories they each cherish. Werner says while training and competing they were more than father and son; they were teammates.
Training solo while Chris served his mission was often lonely for Werner, since the season stretches through the winter with long trips away from home. However, while traveling through Germany, Werner was privileged to see his son.
Chris's mission president allowed him to see his father on two conditions: one, that he take his companion, and two, that they bring his father with them to a discussion.
“It was a really choice experience,” Chris remembers. “My dad can also speak German, and he was able to share his testimony and conversion with those we were teaching.”
It is one of many opportunities Werner has had to share the gospel in his travels. He recorded this account of a blessing he received from his stake president before leaving on a trip:
“In this blessing I was told to listen to the Spirit and act upon its promptings. I was told that unseen angels would watch over me, and that Mom and the family would know that all would be well, to have a positive attitude. I was told to share with others what the gospel meant to me and the happiness it brings into my life.” Werner said he and Chris did the latter often, earning respect from their teammates for their beliefs. They shared their testimonies with athletes from Slovenia, Moldova, Taipei, Australia, and Liechtenstein. Werner told the men what his wife, Sharon, means to him, and how the knowledge that she can be his eternal companion has been a blessing in their life together. He also bore testimony of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon.
Werner also feels that the Lord has protected him. In luge, competitors in supine position steer down icy tracks at speeds passing 80 miles per hour. Yet in eight years of competition he has had relatively few accidents. He has also witnessed the miraculous recoveries of others, which he attributes to the hand of the Lord.
One specific incident occurred when a fellow LDS luger and Olympic hopeful, Michele Despain, took a hard spill on a curve on the track in Cesna, Italy. The trauma had left her in a great deal of pain, both physically and emotionally, with the possibility of her Olympic dreams being shattered. Upon her request, Werner was able to participate in a priesthood blessing. Sister Despain was told that her body would heal.
“I didn’t think she'd be able to make it back,” Werner said. “But 36 hours later she was back on the track. Now she’s qualified for the Olympics. It was a real testimony to me of what Heavenly Father can do for us.”
Both he and Michele will be competing in Torino, which may be the capstone on what Werner says has been the best sports season of his life. He plans to re-evaluate whether or not he will continue luge after the Olympics.
His wife, Sharon, will be the only family member traveling to Italy to see the games, but Werner said even that is a blessing. The Hoegers have funded Werner's training out of their family budget, as Venezuela has not been able to support his expenses. But because Werner will be the only Venezuelan athlete to compete at these Olympic games, Sharon’s trip will be paid for, as she will have the opportunity to serve as Venezuela’s Olympic commissioner. It is a blessing and reward for all the years of sacrifice and support from his family, Werner says.
At school, Chris will be following the competition online, because luge doesn't get much coverage on TV More than anything, he wants his father to be pleased with his own results.
“If he's happy, I will be too,” Chris says. He will never forget the best moment of his own Olympic experience four years agowatching his dad fulfill a lifelong dream. “To see just how happy he washe was giddy like a child at some points. It’s just how much it meant to him,” he says.
Werner returns to Italy this weekend for three more days of training before the opening of the 2006 Winter Olympic Games in Torino on February 10. Ask him if he's ready, and Werner enthusiastically replies that he hopes so.
“I feel like Heavenly Father is taking care of me,” he says.