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Gonzalez Makes History on the Luge Track
Forty-seven-year-old Argentina native competing
in his fourth Olympics in four decades
Devaney, Universal Sports | February 2010
Ruben Gonzalez was a 21-year-old chemistry and biology double major at
Houston Baptist University, he remembers watching the 1984 Winter Olympics
in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia.
And he remembers, as a former soccer player, seeing
U.S. figure skater Scott Hamilton win a gold medal.
uttered a sentence that would change his life forever: "I'll be at the next
Olympics no matter what."
But there was just one problem: He needed to choose a
Gonzalez looked at the lists of winter and summer Olympic sports and tried
to figure out which one would suit him the best. He admits to never being
the most athletic kid, so summer sports were ruled out almost immediately.
Gonzalez eventually settled on luge for reasons that might not seem obvious.
find a sport that fits me," Gonzalez told Universal Sports recently,
referring to what was cycling through his mind at the time. "I'll find
something with a lot of broken bones and a lot of quitters, and I just won't
contacted Lake Placid and said, 'I want to learn how to luge for the next
Twenty-six years later, the 47-year-old Gonzalez is
ready to compete in his fourth Olympics. He'll soon be the first person to
appear at four winter Olympics in four different decades -- 1980s, 1990s,
2000s and 2010s, in his case.
"It's cool. As a professional speaker, I talk about
becoming unstoppable and reaching your goals," said Gonzalez, who is
self-employed as a motivational speaker. "Being able to do this shows my
audience that I'm not just talking, I can do this. At my age, I'm happy to
make the cover of the AARP magazine."
'Scared to death'
Born in Argentina, Gonzalez moved to New York City when
he was 6 years old after his father's job as a chemical engineer brought the
family to the United States. He loved soccer and had big goals of playing
the sport professionally, but never quite got there.
decided to become an Olympian and represent his native Argentina.
Hamilton win Olympic gold, Gonzalez was convinced that the Olympic life was
for him. But the coaches at the Lake Placid Olympic Training Center needed
some coaxing to allow Gonzalez to work with them; the selling point was
Gonzalez's Argentinean citizenship. They thought the sport could use a South
American athlete, so Gonzalez was gladly accepted into the program.
The first time
Gonzalez slid down a luge track was actually during the summer, on an old
wooden bobsled track. His sled had wheels instead of skids. He wore tennis
shorts instead of a skintight rubber bodysuit.
After successfully navigating the
practice track, Gonzalez was invited to participate in the winter training.
This was the real deal, complete with a slick chute of ice stretching nearly
a mile and a sled made of fiberglass and two steel runners.
"The first time
on ice it was scary," Gonzalez recalled. "It feels like you're sitting on a
bar of soap. It's kinda like skating. You need to lean a little each way to
turn. Just learning all that is really hard."
The thing he remembers most about
those early days is crashing. All the time. Gonzalez estimates that he would
crash during three out of every four runs when he first started in the
sport. But one day in the third year, he said, things clicked and he figured
out how to steer. How to anticipate a turn. How to properly lay on the sled.
down an icy chute at 80-90 miles per hour, however, was never his favorite
thing to do.
"For 20 years I was scared to death. I didn't like it
at all," he said. "As the speed increased, I would get tighter and tighter.
White knuckles. I was doing it in spite of not liking it because of the
'I can't believe I do that'
In 1988, Gonzalez cashed in on his Olympic dream by
competing at the Calgary Games. He finished 33rd out of 38 athletes. Four
years later at the Albertville Games, Gonzalez finished 31st in a field of
goal was not to win a medal. Competing at the sport's biggest stage was
enough for him.
At the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, Gonzalez placed
41st in a field of 50.
Why the gap of 10 years between Olympic appearances? He
simply could not afford it. Like most Olympic athletes, Gonzalez was
balancing training, working and paying bills. It was not easy, and he was
forced to sit out Lillehammer (1994), Nagano (1998) and Torino (2006).
do it for the money," Gonzalez said. "You do it for something inside. I've
got this hunger for the Olympics. Some people like to climb mountains and
climb Everest. I like to chalk up Olympics."
Gonzalez, who lives in Katy, Texas
with his wife Cheryl and children Gabriela (9) and Gracen (5), decided to
make a comeback for the Salt Lake City Olympics. A year and a half before
the Games, however, he had a serious crash that nearly ended his dream.
He was in
St. Moritz, a small resort town nestled in the southeast corner of
Switzerland. There was a World Cup race there, and one afternoon Gonzalez
found himself sitting near curve 13 of the track, watching the Italian team
"I said, 'I can't believe I do that. I can't believe I do that,' for two
hours," Gonzalez noted. "The next morning when I hit [curve] 13, I crashed
and broke my hand, foot and totaled my sled. I had a pity party for three
days. I didn't have any money for a new sled."
His body healed but his sled was
beyond repair. He was eventually able to find another luger with an extra
sled, who let Gonzalez borrow it for the Olympics.
have that fire'
After the Salt
Lake City Games, Gonzalez, who worked as a copy machine salesman, was asked
to speak to a group of school children in Houston. He told his story, from
moving to the United States to appearing in three Olympics, and offered some
advice on how to reach your dreams.
The principal was so impressed with
the speech that he said Gonzalez should become a motivational speaker. After
giving it some thought, he quit his job, started his speaking business and
watched it grow.
Eight years later, he's traveled across the globe and
has spoken to business teams at companies such as Xerox, Coca-Cola, Shell
Oil and Hilton Hotels. His Web site, olympicmotivation.com, is his marketing
tool. He speaks about 50 times every year and has written three books on
He's also not afraid of luge anymore, thanks to his
sports psychologist. "For the first time, I'm having fun," he said.
In 2008, Gonzalez
tossed around the idea of making a second comeback, this time for the 2010
Olympics. It had been 20 years since he made his Olympic debut, and he could
think of no better time to give it one more try. He did a few test runs on
the Olympic track in Park City, Utah, and felt strong enough to start a run
The top 40 lugers in the world rankings qualified for Vancouver; he was
originally slotted at No. 42, but when three Norwegians dropped out of the
Games, he moved down to 39th on the list. He was in.
thinking about the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia.
"I'm already at this [Olympic]
level, and I've got four years to get ready," he said.
Gonzalez and his
family are moving to Colorado Springs, Colo. this summer, an eight-hour
drive to the Park City track. He plans on spending 4-6 weeks in Utah at a
time, living in a rented house and training. All he needs to run his
business is a phone, computer and a nearby airport, so he can manage that
His goal is to be among the top 30 athletes selected to compete in Sochi.
Gonzalez will be over 50 then. The next item on his list is possibly making
an attempt to qualify for the 2018 Olympics. He knows it's a long shot, but
so was competing in Calgary after mastering the sport in less than four
I still have that fire in the belly and my body's still holding up, if I
make 2018 I'll be 56," he said. "It's out there; it's something that I'm
thinking about this point. But let's think about 2014 first."
someone will be inspired enough by his story to become an Olympian.
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