BSU professor, 52, to compete in luge for Venezuela

BOISE, Idaho -- For nearly four decades, Werner Hoeger has dreamed about the Olympics.

As a child gymnast in Venezuela, he was fascinated by the summer games in Mexico City. As an adult, he was captivated by the Venezuelan flag displayed in honor of a countryman competing in Nagano.

Now the flag will fly in his honor, as the 52-year-old Boise State University professor competes in the luge during the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy. He'll be the oldest luge racer in the competition, Hoeger said.

"I feel like you have to have goals in life. Goals keep you motivated," Hoeger said. "We have to be realistic -- in the sport of luging, we don't have a chance of medaling."

Those honors will likely go to some of the world's top luging nations, he said: Germany, Italy, Austria, Canada and the United States. Still, just competing in the Olympics is enough for Hoeger.

"I love to compete, and I'm drawn because I missed out on the opportunity as a youngster," he said. "At first I didn't think I could do it. I was five weeks short of my 41st birthday when I started."

The competitive drive began early for Hoeger, who as a child growing up in Merida became one of the most decorated gymnasts in Venezuela's history. He was the nation's all-around champion from 1970 through 1975, and though as an individual he was skilled enough to compete in the Olympics, his hopes were denied when the Venezuelan squad failed to qualify as a team. At the age of 16, he won a gymnastics scholarship to Brigham Young University and moved to the United States.

"But the U.S. and Venezuela have a big difference as far as skill level, and I didn't do as well," Hoeger said. He put his Olympic dreams aside, getting a degree and eventually finding work at Boise State University as a professor in the kinesiology department.

Hoeger's thoughts didn't turn to luging until 1998, when he watched Iginia Boccalandro of Venezuela compete in the event at the Winter Olympics in Nagano. When he called her after the Olympics, she encouraged him to try luging.

He took his teenage son, Chris Hoeger, with him to a luging clinic and the sport became a father-and-son thing. A few practice runs were followed by a few competitions, and eventually the pair qualified for the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. Hoeger came in 40th, and Chris 31st. This time they were the athletes marching beneath the Venezuelan flag.

Now Hoeger hopes to do it again, only this time, he'll be alone. The family are devout Mormons, and his son has just returned from a two-year mission to Germany. Missionaries for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints typically do not compete in sports.

"My goal is to have four clean runs," Hoeger said. "There is a certain amount of risk involved in the sport, and though the injuries are seldom serious you do take a pounding."

Hoeger isn't sure if this will be his last Olympics, though he admits at some point, his age will require new goals.

"But I'm coming off the best season I've ever had and I'm still getting better. We'll just have to see," he said.

The gymnastic training of his youth is largely responsible for his skill at the luge, he said.

"Both sports require a tremendous amount of body awareness. In gymnastics you have to know exactly where to start the twist, stop the twist, when to open up for landing," Hoeger said.

Now Hoeger uses that awareness in luge, he said, to know exactly when to begin his turns by gently sliding either foot along a runner built into the sled.

"It's basically body awareness that's critical to both sports," he said. "It's helped me tremendously."