Zozulya shocks Sollman to win women's luge
Latvian-born Soviet luger Vera Zozulya entered the 1980 Lake Placid Olympic Games as the clear second favourite for gold behind the reigning world and European champion Melitta Sollmann of East Germany.
In the individual competition, luge sleds – similar to toboggans – must weigh no more than 23kg, or 27kg for a team of two. Competitors – known as sliders – hurtle down the course feet first and use only their legs and shoulders to guide the toboggan.
This thrilling – and dangerous – sport saw its first organised race held in 1883 at Davos, Switzerland, and the first World Championships were held 72 years later in 1955. By the 1960s the sport was dominated by East Germany, Austria and the Soviet Union.
Luge is an especially dangerous sport, compared even with bobsleigh. Single racers and two-person teams cling to the tiny surface of their toboggans without the side protection enjoyed by bobsledders, and winning races is all about reacting instantaneously to hairpin bends at terrifying speeds rather than two or four people co-ordinating constantly to work as a single unit.
Lugers have to be in peak physical condition – and have nerves of steel. As a former wrestler, Zozulya had bravery, stamina and muscle in abundance.
Ahead of the Games in upstate New York, she had enjoyed success in the women’s singles event at the FIL World Luge Championships, with a gold in 1978 and a silver in 1977. At the FIL European Luge Championships she had won a gold in 1976 and a bronze in 1978.
After the first two days, Zozulya, racing 19th in a field of 26th, managed to turn the tables on her East German rival after two runs, to go into the last two days of the competition in pole position. By the end of the competition she had clung on – literally – to pip Sollmann to the title with an overall time of 2:36.537.
After the Games, Zozulya collected a bronze medal at the World Championship in 1981, and won the overall women’s singles Luge World Cup title in 1982. She defended her gold medal in Sarajevo four years later, but could only manage fifth place in a field dominated once again by East Germany, whose lugers took gold, silver and bronze, restoring the natural order she had upset so spectacularly at Lake Placid.
Zozulya later became a luge coach in the Soviet Union, Latvia, and Poland. She was inducted into the International Luge Federation Hall of Fame in 2006. As of 2010, she remains the only non-German speaking woman to have ever won gold in the sport at the Olympic Winter Games.