Demchenko will be one of the favorites at Sochi. Source: ITAR-TASS
Ilya Sobolev, for RBTH
Albert Demchenko says he chose the luge as a kid because it was one of the three sports options available in his hometown of Chusovaya in the Perm Region. The other two choices were cross-country skiing or alpine skiing. By the time he considered taking up sports, Demchenko was too old to start alpine skiing, and Demchenko decided that cross-country skiing wasn’t for him after losing his way in a forest for several hours. "I have been wary of getting deep into the woods ever since, so do not venture out on long skiing trips," he said.
Demchenko's serious luging career began with a silver medal at the Junior World Cup in Winterberg, Germany. In 1990, at the age of 19, he was selected for Russia’s senior national team; two years later, he went to his first Winter Olympics in Albertville, France. Demchenko came in eighth there and was ninth at the next Games, in Lillehammer. This performance was quite understandable for an athlete whose country had no bobsleigh and luge track of its own at the time.
"Albert deserves taking off your hat to," said Valery Silakov, vice president of the Russian Luge Federation. "His formative years as an athlete fell in the 1990s, the most difficult time not only for our sport but for the country in general. We had virtually no funding, and athletes even went hungry at times. Albert was the only one to persevere and stay on. Even his partner Alexei Zelensky, who participated with him in the two-seat luge, eventually quit.”
Demchenko himself recalls how he took pork from his father's small farm to sell it at a farmers' market to make money. The would-be Olympic champion also took odd-jobs as a driver and a loader, but still found time to luge. He won a silver in men's singles a bronze in men's doubles at the European Championships in 1996. In 1998, Demchenko decided to specialize exclusively in singles.
Demchenko's career took off in the mid-2000s. He was named overall Luge World Cup champion in 2004-2005, and won his first Olympic medal – a silver – at the Turin Games in 2006. Demchenko almost missed Turin: doctors had forgotten to remove a tube from his thorax after an appendectomy, and had to do a second operation.
Demchenko's silver in Turin came as a surprise to many: he lost by just 0.029 seconds to his archrival Armin Zoeggler of Italy, and set a new record for the track. "I have only just got my first taste of victory; we'll see what happens in Vancouver!" Demchenko said at the time.
Unfortunately, the 2010 Olympics did not turn out well for Demchenko, who had been considered one of the favorites. The death of a Georgian luger caused the organizers to shorten the track, which was to Demchenko's disadvantage. Zoeggler beat him to the third place.
"Even prior to Vancouver I decided to stay [in sports]," Demchenko once said in an interview. "I want to take part in the Games in my home country. Most importantly, I will get a chance to prepare properly for contesting the gold."
In 2012, Demchenko won two golds at the Luge World Cup in Altenberg. But in the current season, he has failed to medal in any major events.
"All our training is focused on [Demchenko's] successful performance at Sochi," Silakov said. "He did okay at the first events of the World Cup, coming seventh and 10th. It would have been pointless to step up the training; besides, Albert got enough workout at the recent training session in Sochi."
Demchenko's luge is quite unusual this season: it was designed with the help of Marussia F1 mechanics to make it more aerodynamic and incorporate some technical tricks.
Walter Plaikner, head coach of the Russian national luge team, attributes Demchenko's problems to an insufficiently high starting speed. "He is an unconditional leader of the track, no one on the team comes close to his technique, experience and knowledge. But he must work harder to achieve faster starts because the Sochi competition will be very stiff," Plaikner said.
Demchenko will be one of the favorites at Sochi. Zoeggler, who will also be there, has speculated that the Olympic track was specifically designed for Demchenko's weight. On the other hand, German luger Felix Loch, the Vancouver gold medalist, is about the same weight and size as Demchenko, so the competition should be very interesting.
There is one other factor. Demchenko once said about his previous Olympic experience: "You feel the atmosphere of your own event but do not get to feel much of what is going on elsewhere. You ride your track, get back to the hotel, pack your things, get on the bus at six o'clock the following morning and fly off back home at eight. This time around it is certainly going to be different."