Feb. 7, 2002 – On Feb. 12, Crucian schoolteacher Dinah Browne will squirm into a skintight speedsuit, pull an aerodynamic crash helmet over her head, take a deep breath and then hurtle down a tube of ice at speeds approaching 90 mph. It's a trip that will take her into the Olympic record books no matter where she finishes among her fellow competitors.
Browne will become the first black woman ever to compete in the sport of luge in the Winter Olympics. And she will represent the U.S. Virgin Islands, which because of its colonial past has a separate Olympic Games team from the mainland United States.
Browne and Anne Abernathy of St. Thomas make up the territory's luge team. Also competing for the Virgin Islands in the 2002 Winter Olympics, which open in Salt Lake City Friday, are two-man and four-man bobsled teams.
Never until just three years ago did Browne, a 32-year-old English teacher at Central High School, dream that her life would take such an improbable path from the tropics to the icy slopes.
Having grown up on St. Croix, she never saw ice or snow until, as a 17-year-old, she began her college studies at Rutgers University in New Jersey. She knew nothing about the sport of luge, she said, and focused her athletic talents on track, aerobics, snorkeling and sea kayaking.
But in 1999, a friend told her about a two-week training camp in Calgary, Canada, run by the International Luge Federation, the governing body of world luge competitions. The program was designed to broaden the sport's appeal among people from smaller countries outside of Europe, where it has long been popular, according to Babette Wegscheider, a spokeswoman for the federation.
Looking back now, Browne says she was curious and eager to try a new sport, so she went to the camp. And she was hooked.
"I had a vague notion of what the sport was," she recalls. "Then they gave me a helmet, and I was, like, 'Oh.You need a helmet?' I had never even sat on a sled." But in no time at all, "I was having really good runs," she says. "It was a real natural feeling."
A year later she attended a second camp, in Austria. As she improved further, the camp director, Gunther Lemmerer, suggested she train further with the goal of qualifying for a World Cup race, she recalls. After some smaller competitions, she qualified for her first World Cup event in December 2000. Since then, she has spent the last two winters competing on the luge circuit in Europe and North America.
Browne qualified for the 2002 Winter Olympics by meeting the luge federation's standard of qualifying for and completing in least three World Cup events. She says she is still improving and had her best runs ever at a Jan. 19-20 event in Sigulda, Latvia, where she placed 31st, about four seconds behind the winner, Silke Kraushaar of Germany.
Although she may not be considered a contender to win a medal at Salt Lake City, Browne says she plans to keep training with an eye on winning at the 2006 Winter Games at Torino, Italy. "In another four years, I'll be a very strong competitor," she says.
Her success in reaching the Winter Olympics does not surprise Browne's parents, Wesley and Genevieve Browne, who say they can understand why their daughter has taken to the luge.
"She loves speed. She drives fast, she drives very fast. She walks fast, too," Genevieve Browne says. "She has always been our source of energy."
The speed of hurtling luge does not scare her, Browne says, but she does get nervous as she sits at the top of the run. She compares it to standing on a bridge high over water, and the feeling you get when you're about to jump in.
"I say to myself, 'I can conquer this track.' You think about each turn — if you should go in early, if you take it high or low," she says. "It looks dangerous, but it really isn't. You get some bruises sometimes. Maybe sometimes someone breaks an arm or something."
Browne says she hopes to build interest in luge among Virgin Islanders, and to show that reaching such a dream as going to the Olympics can come true in unexpected ways.
"When I first thought about being the first black woman to compete in luge," she says, "I thought, 'Wow, I never planned this!' Being the first of something may not pay off for me, but it may pay off for someone else." She adds, "Being the first in any sport, you hope others will follow."
For additional preview coverage of V.I. athletes taking part in the 2002 Winter Games, see "Browne to carry V.I. flag at Olympic opening" and "9 Virgin Islanders readying for Winter Olympics"


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