He has broken the Guinness Book of World Records speed record for a man on a sled, and has won North American and U.S. championships. But Tony Benshoof is just as likely to be found playing music or water skiing as sliding down an icy track. Tony Benshoof hopes to do something no other American man has ever done, win an Olympic medal in singles luge.
In October 2001, Tony Benshoof blasted down the Park City, Utah, track - the site of the 2002 Olympic competition - at 139.37 kilometers per hour, sliding into the Guinness Book of World Records.
The American slider says that while he was honored to get the Guiness Book record, speed is part of the sport, and even his record-breaking time has been beaten.
"It was pretty exciting, I beat it by a couple of miles per hour," said Tony Benshoof. "86.7 miles per hour [140 kph] is the record. And that still holds to this day; no one has beaten it yet. As far as an average speed, that is about average. In fact, during the Olympics in 2002 we were actually clocked at over 90 [miles per hour, or 145 kilometers per hour]. But I was the one that broke the record with Guinness being there, so I am in the book."
But Benshoof did not come close to an Olympic medal in Salt Lake City, finishing in 17th place. The American says that loss motivated him to work harder, and it paid off. In the 2003-2004 season, he won his first Challenge Cup gold medal. He also won a bronze medal at a World Cup event. It was the best start of his career. But the American says his poor Olympic finish has continued to motivate him as he prepares for the 2006 Games.
"I didn't place as well as I had hoped, and, frankly, that has been my biggest motivator the last three years," he said. "And I have worked hard in the gym, and I have worked hard on the track, and it came together the last couple of years. And, I am hoping that this year is even better than those."
Athletes in luge travel down the same track as the bobsleds and skeleton racers, but where the other athletes can see where they are going, luge sliders rely more on feel. They can often be seen in the starting gate, visualizing every twist and turn of the track before the race starts. Benshoof says that he has a lot of respect for other sliders, but he will stick to his sport.
"Skeleton goes head first, but there is nothing in the track that they can hit, so it does not necessarily make it more dangerous," explained Tony Benshoof. "And they are seeing all the time, whereas, we are going feet first, and a third, or half the time, we are not looking. It is a great sport, skeleton is wonderful. But the bottom line is, it is two entirely different sports, but we compete on the same track."
So far this season, Tony Benshoof has finished second three times on the World Cup circuit and third once. One race - in Calgary - he was disqualified. An avid musician, Benshoof plays both piano and guitar, and says the lifestyle of a luge racer fits him well.
"Essentially, seven months out of the year we are living out of a duffle bag, and we spend a lot of time in Europe," he said. "So, we are staying in hotels, we are staying in various training centers, bed and breakfasts, these kind of places. And we have our little home-away-from-home in every track. It is a great life, if you like to travel, and I love it. That is one of the greatest parts of luge, if you ask me, aside from competing and traveling down the track, it is traveling to all the different places."
Benshoof has booked his ticket for Turin, and is the only member of the U.S. singles team to qualify for the Winter Games, based on his World Cup luge results. The other men's singles slots went to teammates Chris Niccum, who did not qualify in doubles, and Jonathan Myles, who had to win a special race-off against 17-year-old Chris Mazdzer.
Four years ago, American Adam Heidt finished fourth in men's singles, missing a bronze medal by less than one-third of a second. Tony Benshoof hopes he is the one who will better that placing, and become the first American man to get a medal in singles luge.