She's not anybody's idea of an Olympic athlete, she says. "I'm too old and fat," she says with a big laugh; and you can see, as you size her up, that in a way she's right. Stocky and 36 when all around her might be prepubescent and sleek, she doesn't exactly have the right look.
But here she is packing her bags for Nagano and the 1998 Winter Olympics. Too old and too heavy, maybe, but ready to make a splash at the Games anyway.Iginia Boccalandro is a member of the Venezuelan luge team. Actually she IS the Venezuelan luge team. She is, in fact, the only athlete her country has ever sent to the Winter Olympics.
She's the 1998 version of the Jamaican bobsled team, that ragtag group that brought charm and incongruity to the Winter Olympics in Calgary. Like the Jamaicans, Boccalandro hails from a country not exactly known for its winter sports, or even its winters.
Her journey to Nagano has taken seven years; in other words, 233,600 times longer than it will take her to compete in three luge runs at the Olympics.
And, like a good luge run, the journey has never been a straight shot.
For starters, Boccalandro, who has lived in Salt Lake City since 1992, had to convince her native country that it belonged at the Winter Olympics, and then that it should send her. Then she had to reinvent herself.
Boccalandro makes a living in Salt Lake City as a practitioner of structural integration, a form of deep tissue massage known more commonly as Rolfing. She has always been an athletic person, competing when she was younger on the Venezuelan national volleyball team and later as a downhill skier. After ruining her knees, she took up cross-country skiing.
In 1993 she traveled to Alaska - as the entire Venezuelan Nordic ski team - where she trained in the hopes of qualifying for the '94 Olympics.
It was a lonely and discouraging time for the normally upbeat and gregarious Boccalandro. Other cross-country teams, from countries where it actually snows, were housed in nice condos. Boccalandro had to make do with a room in a house still under construction.
So every evening, to cheer herself up, she would settle in at a Fairbanks movie theater to watch "Cool Runnings," a fictionalized version of the Jamaican bobsled team. She saw the movie 10 nights in a row.
It was "Cool Runnings" - the story of underdogs who triumph - that got her through those weeks of training, she says.
Still, she wasn't quite good enough to meet the Olympics' stringent qualifying times. That's when she had to face up to the fact that her body type wasn't ideal for endurance skiing.
Discouraged, she returned home to Utah, where, a month later, her family converged from various parts of the globe to cheer her up during the Olympics.
"Come look, Iginia," her mother called to her one night. "I think I've found your sport. There's a woman who looks like you." There on the TV was a solid, stocky woman. She was riding a luge sled.
A few days later, when her Nordic coach called to check in with her, Boccalandro asked him about luge. A perfect sport for you, the coach agreed. Perfect for your disposition, too - relaxed and laid back.
In the four years since then, Boccalandro has trained hard, even when she didn't have a luge track to practice on. The Olympic track at Bear Hollow, built for Utah's hosting of the 2002 Winter Olympics, wasn't finished until the fall of 1996.
In the meantime, Boccalandro would haul her sled to various Wasatch mountain resorts, where she would trudge up the hill, carrying the 30-pound practice sled on her back, then ride the snowy, bumpy hill back down.
Since Bear Hollow has been opened, Boc-ca-landro has made more runs down its luge track than any other single person - 87 runs in all during 1997.
Still, at about 45 seconds per run, that only amounts to a total of less than one hour of track time.
And that's why, says Boccalandro, she won't be winning a medal at the Nagano Olympics. It takes eight or nine years to get really good, she says, and she's only in year four. Her finishing times are about three seconds slower than the real contenders at Nagano, she says. Her real goal is 2002.
Boccalandro has trained for the past four years with Jon Owen, program coordinator for the U.S. Luge Association. She has practiced mostly with kids. "I learned luge the way children learn," she says, "which is without fear." Since luge is a sport of finesse and wipeouts, she has bruises, burns, scrapes and puncture wounds all over her body.
Boccalandro was 7 when she first discovered the intoxicating combination of ice and speed. Her family, which had just moved to Boston from Venezuela so her dad could study at MIT, lived in a house with a steep driveway.
That first winter, Boccalandro poured water on the driveway and created the neighborhood's best sledding hill. Later, after her mother fell on the track, it was decided that Boccalandro could pour water only on the middle of the driveway.
She moved back to Venezuela when she was 12, then back to the States to finish college.
So she still feels like a Venezuelan, and that's why in 1993 she first approached Fernando Romero, the head of the National Olympic Committee of Venezuela, about representing the country at the Olympics, in skiing.
She wasn't able to actually get an appointment with him, but she and her twin sister, Maria, were able to stop him in the parking lot. While Iginia cried, Maria made their pitch.
They had no luck, so when the twins decided to try again last summer they sent ahead a publicity packet to Caracas, and took their mother along, too. By the end of the interview, Romero was promising that, if she qualified at the Olympic trials, he would help pay her way to Nagano.
Boccalandro figures she still needs to come up with $40,000, on top of the $40,000 to $80,000 she estimates she has already spent (in expenses and lost wages). She is getting sponsorship help from Columbia Sportswear and Wasatch Academy, which has set up a tax-deductible fund for her.
She decided to name her luge team International Team Venezuela, to reflect the support from her American friends. "It takes two countries . . . to raise an Olympian" is the team's official motto.
Venezuela's total delegation to Nagano consists of Boccalandro, her twin, team manager Shellie Farady, and her Olympics coach, Jonathan Edwards. By contrast, the United States is sending 159 athletes and 120 coaches.
Boccalandro has already tried out the Nagano track during training there in December, so she sort of knows what to expect. Every day now she visualizes herself sliding along "The Spiral," a tricky set of turns in the middle of the course. She sees two views of herself: from above and on the sled itself.
She sees herself lying flat on the sled on top of the ice - a mirror on top of a mirror, she says - her head bumping along the course, the walls out of focus, everything banking on those 45 seconds, everything coming down to the tiniest of movements.
She'll be doing it for real at Nagano in February, just a blur on our TV screens. And at 70 mph, no one will be able to see her age or her weight. They'll just see a woman having the time of her life.