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Sports Olympics

For Baltimore-born Olympic luger Summer Britcher, risk-taking runs in her blood

She hails from a family of Baltimore firefighters, but Summer Britcher's life runs counter. She battles the ice.

One of the youngest members of the Olympic luge team, Britcher, 19, is competing in her first Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. Opening ceremonies are Friday and come Monday she'll lay on her back and rattle her sled down a frozen track with 17 banked turns for nearly one mile at speeds exceeding 80 miles an hour. Sans brakes.

"It's terrifying, but I'm hooked," Britcher said. "I love it."

Her family will be in the stands egging her on, fingers crossed. Four years ago, a 21-year-old Georgian luger crashed and died during a training run at the 2010 Games in Canada.

"Sure I'm concerned," said Bill Britcher, her father and a captain in the Baltimore City Fire Department. "I took a run once at Lake Placid (N.Y.) and it was so rough and shaky that when I reached the bottom, I felt like my head was going to fall off of my neck.

"It's a dangerous sport, but Summer has to live her life. At this point, I'd worry more if she were a firefighter."

Born in Baltimore, Summer Britcher soon moved with her family to Glen Rock, Pa. Two uncles, Brian Britcher and John Britcher, are lieutenants in the BCFD and her grandfather, Francis Britcher, is a retired captain. In late December, flanked by family and friends, she received a hearty send-off at Engine 29 station house on Park Heights Avenue.

"I'm honored to represent them all," she said.

Also on hand was Kimmie Meissner, of Bel Air, onetime Olympian and world figure skating champion whose brother, Nate, is a firefighter there.

"Risk-taking must run in our families," said Meissner, 24. "Of course, firefighters have to be brave. What Summer does is really challenging, and skaters are always defying the laws of physics."

Meissner herself has never luged. Nor does she care to.

"I think I would, like, freak out," she said.

Being brave is in her blood, Britcher said. She knew it at age 11, on her first luge run at Ski Liberty in Fairfield, Pa. There, on a makeshift bunny track, she rode a plastic sled down a 700-foot chute at 25 miles an hour — and hurried back in line to do it again, five times in all.

"It seemed so cool to me," said Britcher, unaware that she had turned some heads. Watching intently was Gordy Sheer, marketing director for the U.S. Luge Association which built the track as a recruiting tool to attract youngsters with Olympic potential.

"Summer was an athletic kid whose determination stood out from the start," said Sheer, a silver medalist in the 1998 Winter Games. "Plus, she was big for her age. Luge is a momentum sport, and sliders must be long, lean and heavy. We also sized up her parents, to see what she might look like grown up."

Before Britcher left Ski Liberty, Sheer handed the startled girl his business card.

"Have your parents call me," he said.

They did. Next stop: a luge screening camp in Lake Placid, where the pre-teen spent a week flying down the chute and impressing USLA officials. Focus. Moxie. Stamina. Britcher had it all. Eight years later, she recalls her first run on a real track.

"There was the huge adrenaline rush that came from going fast, with a little danger mixed in to make it exhilarating," she said. "Hey, I was 11, I would try anything."

She made the USA Junior Development Team and, over time, "just clawed her way up the ladder from there," Sheer said.

In 2012, Britcher won a gold medal in the team relay at the Youth Olympics. In November, she scored her highest finish to date on the Senior World Cup circuit, placing eighth in Igls, Austria.

There have been mishaps en route — crashes and flips at derring-do speeds that have left her with bruises and ice burns.

"I've crashed countless times," she said. "On a run, you're just dialed in and don't notice how fast you're going unless you make a mistake and hit an ice-covered concrete wall. It hurts, but I've been lucky so far."

Britcher is the third youngest member of the 10-person U.S. team, which ranges in age from 18-36.

"Summer has come a long way in a short time," said Mark Grimmette, USA Luge Sport Program Director, adding that the "positive energy" she brings the team can't be overstated.

What Britcher still lacks, he said, is an explosive start:

"Finishing in the top 10 [in Sochi] would be great for her; finishing in the top 15 would be a solid result."

Britcher's goal?

"The top 10 is do-able, but it won't be easy," she said. "The experience alone will make me a lot more competitive in four years."

Her daughter had spunk from the start, Carrie Britcher said.

While skiing at age 4, "Summer got real aggravated when someone passed her going down the hill because they were heavier," her mother said. "She'd say, 'That's not fair! You're bigger than me!'"

At 5, Britcher and her two older brothers built snow ramps at the base of the hill in their back yard and careened over them in inner tubes, somersaulting through the air in glee.

Three years ago, when her mother entered a cherry seed-spitting contest at a local orchard, Summer Britcher took part too.

"I was determined to beat my mom," she said, "so we bought bags of cherries and practiced spitting, and I wound up winning the whole thing [with a distance of 30 feet]. The local newspaper ran a real embarrassing picture of me, in mid-cherry pit spit."

Question her name — an athlete named Summer competing in the Winter Games — and Britcher rolls her eyes for, perhaps, the umpteenth time. Let her mother explain.

"She was born in March after a cold, snowy winter," Carrie Britcher said. "She came on the first day of spring, so we named her Summer. She was an upbeat child with a sunny personality, so the name kind of fit."

For the record, Summer Britcher hates the cold.

"It's a slowly developed hate over the past eight years, stemming from having gone to tons of cold places and wearing a Spandex suit in negative 20-degree temperatures," she said. "All I have to keep me warm is my name."

mike.klingaman@baltsun.com


Summer Britcher

Born: March 21, 1994 at Greater Baltimore Medical Center

Lives: Glen Rock, Pa.

Family: Father Bill, captain in Baltimore City Fire Department. Mother Carrie. Youngest of four children.

Olympic event: Women's luge (singles)

Competition: Begins Monday and concludes Tuesday

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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