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On Island Profile: Anne Abernathy

Sept. 13, 2005 – There's nothing like careening down a twisting, icy track flat on your back at 90 miles an hour to make you think ahead. As Olympic luge competitor Anne Abernathy explains, you have to anticipate the next curve and use all you've got – body and mind – to take it.
Right now, Abernathy is concentrating on the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, where she plans to rack up another first as the oldest woman to compete in six winter Olympics. Just the number of competitions is remarkable. But Abernathy's age is also one for the record books. Dubbed "Grandma Luge" back in 1993 when she was a mere 40 years old, she's now well established in her 50s and still going strong in a sport that once was thought too much for anyone over 30.
"This is not an easy sport," Abernathy understated in a recent interview on St. Thomas, where she has maintained a home and her official residence for the last 23 years. On island, she keeps in shape and builds muscle by swimming and kayaking at Magens Bay, working out at the gym and doing 400 to 500 sit-ups a day to develop "core strength." Building muscle is critical, she explained, because the physical part of the sport is "all brute strength."
Obviously a cold climate and a luge track are needed for the finer parts of training, so Abernathy spends winters in Canada or Europe on the luge circuit, practicing and competing.
"You don't just show up at the Olympics," she noted. "The qualifications are getting so restrictive." From November to mid-December, she will need to make a good showing in five races in five different countries to ensure a spot in the next Olympics.
"The physical part is the least of it," she said. "It's extremely expensive to do the sport. It's six figures a year to do it." And Abernathy is starting in the hole for this one. The corporate sponsor she had last time out was a drug company that ran into financial trouble and left her with a debt.
But she is determined to raise the capital she needs to get down the Olympic track one more time. Her website www.GrandmaLuge.com is full of ways to donate to the cause, including buying commemorative Virgin Islands license plates that feature a picture of her on her luge and the legend "Sliding for six in 2006."
Abernathy knows a lot about determination. She's survived numerous crashes, a myriad of fractures – leg, foot, shoulder, knee, thumb, ribs, leg and more toes than she can count — as well as cancer and two concussions.
In January 2001, she was one of numerous athletes to wipe out at what was apparently an unusually dangerous track in the World Cup in Altenberg, Germany. Her head gear was ripped off and she was slammed by her own sled. She was unconscious for 20 minutes and when she awoke, she had lost three years of memory. The injury left her with uncertain balance and made her subject to frequent seizures.
She fought back with a new medical technique called neurobiofeedback. She spent weeks with electrodes connected to her head, playing video games using nothing but her brainwaves, thus relearning how to control her brainwaves and basically how to use her brain. She recovered in time to make it to the 2002 Olympics and is so convinced of the power of brain neurotherapy that she would like to become a spokesman for it – after she completes her Olympic career.
Abernathy is clearly comfortable in the public eye. She gave up a professional singing career to turn luge from a hobby into a vocation. "I just went from being a starving artist to being a starving athlete," she laughed.
She was introduced to luge on a ski vacation in Lake Placid in the early 1980s. It looked like fun, and she quickly discovered she had a knack for it. She started training with U.S. teams. Then she found out that a group in the Virgin Islands had the crazy idea of putting together a bobsled team to compete in the 1988 Winter Olympics and realized it was an idea that could work for her.
Abernathy already had a strong V.I. connection. She was born while her parents were living on St. Thomas, her father commuting to Puerto Rico, where he was stationed as the Army-Air Corps inspector general for the Caribbean and South America. Although she grew up on the mainland, she spent a lot of her school vacations on St. Thomas. When she finished college, she bought a house on the island.
Representing the Virgin Islands rather than the U.S. gave her an advantage – there is less competition for its Olympic slots. But Abernathy has been good for the territory, too. She has contributed to the Virgin Islands' athletic reputation and has helped other V.I. athletes, taking several with her to Europe to train. She speaks with pride of two third-place finishes in world competitions, when race organizers had to scramble to find a Virgin Islands flag for the platform ceremony.
With a contingent of teenagers and 20-somethings elbowing one another for positions in the field – let alone on the Olympic platform – it may be unrealistic to dream of a 2006 medal for Abernathy. But she knows she'll be in the running.
"I've come too far to give up" just because of a cash shortage, she said.

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