For Olympian Kate Hansen, luge is more than just an athletic endeavor; it's a Mormon missionary opportunity

Published: Thursday, Feb. 6 2014 5:00 a.m. MST

USA's Kate Hansen competes in the women's race of the luge World Cup at the Utah Olympic Park in Park City on Friday, Dec. 13, 2013.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Olympian Kate Hansen was sitting in the lobby of a Russian hotel when the man approached.

In his mid-20s, Timur Bakirov asked if he could speak with her even though she was obviously engrossed in a phone call. She thought he was with the press, and she tried to politely decline a conversation by telling him that she was on the phone with her mother.

“He said, ‘I’m LDS,’ ” said Kathie Hansen, Kate's mother. “And Kate said, ‘Mom, I’ve got to go.’ ”

He was an engineer for the Russian luge team from St. Petersburg, and he told Hansen in a very thick accent that he was getting baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in two weeks.

“He said, ‘I wanted to let you know that you were my first missionary,’ ” recalled Hansen, who will compete in Sochi, Russia, as a member of the U.S. luge team. “I literally could have cried. ... In my patriarchal blessing, it talks about this. It says (I) will affect people (I) do not know. I called my mom crying. I said, ‘You will not believe this.’ ”

Bakirov was afraid Hansen wouldn’t make the trip to Russia, as she’d broken her foot in the team selection races in October. But not only did Hansen make the trip, she also won those selection races even though she had to use crutches to get to the starting line.

The California native listened as Bakirov recounted their first meeting. A year earlier, the U.S. team was training on the Olympic track when he asked if he could get a picture with the team. When they posed together, he said he felt there was something different about Hansen.

He searched the Internet for information about her and discovered, in part because of her YouTube page, that she was a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The 26-year-old put his hands over his heart and tried to describe in his limited English how he felt when he met Hansen, and how he felt that same feeling when he finally found Mormon missionaries months later.

“He kept saying, ‘My heart, my heart,’ and I said, ‘Your heart was full?’ and he said, ‘Yes, my heart was full. Then I saw your video and I felt the same way,’ ” Hansen recalled.

Kathie Hansen said Kate was so moved by the experience, it became more important to her than her quest to make the U.S. Olympic luge team.

“She said, ‘If I don’t make the Olympic team, it was all worth it. This story and this experience makes it all worth it,' ” Kathie said.

As it turns out, the girl who grew up surfing and skateboarding in the California sunshine will compete for the U.S. in luge in the 2014 Olympic Games. Hansen has high hopes, especially as the Brigham Young University student will enter the games with a win in the final World Cup race of the season — the first World Cup victory for an American woman in 17 years.

At this moment, Kate Hansen’s life certainly looks perfect.

But the 21-year-old BYU student’s path to the Olympics was difficult and, at times, very much in doubt. She endured fractures to her back during her junior year of high school, missed out on the 2010 Games by the smallest margin and then, just a few months ago, she broke her foot during team selection races.

Hansen won the first two races in Lake Placid, and then, on a training day in Park City before the final two races, she broke her foot.

“We thought it was over,” said her father, John Hansen. “We thought, 'What a terrible end to this 10-year career.' ... That hit us really hard. We were kind of devastated.”

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