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Zablocki Survives Scary Day for Lugers

February 14, 2006

CESANA, Italy (AP) _ Courtney Zablocki entered the final round of women’s luge in elite company _ closer to an Olympic medal than any female American luger in history.

Yet after seeing teammates struggle _ and one airlifted to a hospital after a scary crash _ it remained to be seen how daring Zablocki would be in Tuesday’s medal-deciding runs on a demanding, dangerous course.

U.S. Olympic rookie Samantha Retrosi suffered a concussion, short-term memory loss and cuts on her left knee and chin in a crash Monday. She skidded through several turns, smacked the track’s bottom wall, and race officials unfurled a drape to keep fans from viewing the scene.

Retrosi, a 20-year-old from Saranac Lake, N.Y., just eight miles from Lake Placid, was taken to a hospital in Turin and was expected to be held overnight.

``You’re doing 80 and 90 mph sometimes, and that’s unfortunately part of the sport,″ U.S. team leader Fred Zimny said. ``They happen, and 90 percent of the time there’s no injuries or no serious injuries.″

Zimny doesn’t expect Retrosi’s wreck to affect Zablocki.

``Courtney has got so much confidence right now,″ Zimny said. ``I’ve never seen her with so much confidence. She’s going to be very, very aggressive.″

Retrosi’s competitors were stunned. As she watched the crash, Germany’s Tatjana Huefner gasped and stared blankly at the image for several seconds.

``It’s a very, hard and difficult track,″ said defending Olympic gold medalist Sylke Otto, who led a 1-2-3 German standings stranglehold at the midway point. ``Crashes are always possible.″

The track was modified last year for safety reasons, after a Brazilian sustained a serious head injury and a Romanian broke an arm during events in February 2005. Some of those changes included raising the ice base between curves 16 and 17 _ around where Retrosi hit the wall.

Zablocki is the first U.S. women’s luger to be this close midway through an Olympics. Otto finished in 1 minute, 33.861 seconds, with Silke Kraushaar 0.268 seconds back and Huefner 0.517 seconds off the lead.

The 25-year-old Zablocki is fourth, four one-thousandths of a second behind Huefner _ and in contention to become America’s first Olympic singles luge medalist.

``It will take a lot,″ Zablocki said.

Against the German juggernaut, it takes more than a lot.

German women have swept medals at five of 11 Olympic luge competitions, including 2002. And Germany has won 65 consecutive women’s World Cup races.

``I won’t lie. It’s difficult. I mean, they’re a very strong team,″ said Zablocki, who has never been better than fourth in a major international race and was 13th at the 2002 games. ``They have a lot of depth, a lot more money than we do, a lot more research going into their sleds and into their athletes also. It’s hard.″

Retrosi’s was one of several Monday crashes _ including one that knocked out Italy’s Anastasia Oberstolz-Antonova. Ranked fourth in the world this season, she had been expected to challenge for a medal.

Czech slider Marketa Jeriova also wiped out in the opening round and like Oberstolz-Antonova, she walked away uninjured. But medal hopeful Natalia Yakushenko of Ukraine didn’t start her second run because of an injury sustained when banging the wall during her opening heat.

Several other racers had near-disasters as well after Retrosi’s wreck, including America’s Erin Hamlin _ who nearly crashed in her first run, grabbing her helmet with both hands as if in disbelief when crossing the finish line.

She’s in 17th place entering Tuesday, and acknowledged that Oberstolz-Antonova’s crash rattled her.

``It definitely caught me off guard,″ Hamlin said. ``But anything can happen.″

___

AP Sports Writers Tom Withers and Jerome Pugmire contributed to this report.

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