1 of 3
Rick Despain
Michelle Despain will be the only woman competing in the luge event for Argentina at the 2006 Torino Winter Games.

OREM — It's like steering yourself down a giant water slide at 70 miles per hour. And Orem's Michelle Despain will be the only woman competing in the luge event for Argentina at the 2006 Torino Winter Olympic Games.

Formerly a gymnast and ballroom dancer at Provo High School, Despain, 21, who now calls Orem her home, decided to make the switch to the cold sport at the urging of her boyfriend and his father — both luge competitors and previous Olympians.

After one mock run in Park City in 2003, Despain said she decided she'd give it a try for real. She was competing in Europe by the end of 2004.

"It's so fun," she said. "You go about 70 miles per hour, down the ice, steering curves. It's just fun — I'm in control of my sled."

She competed in World Cups in Austria, Germany, Latvia, Italy, Canada and the U.S., qualifying in all six for the 2006 Olympics.

It may seem a little odd — a woman from Utah Valley competing for Argentina.

Despain's mother is from Argentina and Despain was born there while her parents took care of her ailing grandfather. She has dual citizenship.

"I don't feel like I've abandoned my country," she said. "I am just as much American as I am an Argentine. I love Argentina. I don't think I'll feel out of the loop because I know about my culture."

Despain's boyfriend, Christopher Hoeger, knows how that feels.

Hoeger's dad was born and raised in Venezuela, and Hoeger is also a dual citizen. He and his dad competed in luge for Venezuela in the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, fulfilling a lifelong dream for Hoeger's dad.

"It's not really comparable to anything," Christopher Hoeger said. "I don't know how to describe it. It's a lot scarier to watch than it is to do. When you're watching them, you see them flying by at 80 miles per hour, you think, 'They're insane.' "

At first, Christopher Hoeger just wanted to try his hand at the luge for fun. It was so different than any other sport that he stuck with it.

"I do enjoy the feeling when you're just going down a track, the flow of the curves. It's a really cool, flowing feeling if you do it right. If you do it wrong, they're less flow, more crash."

Hoeger said he hasn't gotten too banged up. And there has only been one bad crash in Despain's history. That doesn't deter her.

In a week, Despain, her mother, father and little brother will head to Italy, ready for the experience of a lifetime.

"This is her moment, and we need to be there for her," said her father, Rick Despain, who lives in Chandler, Ariz. "My wife and I always tried to raise her to believe she could accomplish anything and she is. I'm a proud dad — you can tell."

After competing in Italy, Despain, who has earned an associate degree in psychology from UVSC, will continue studying at Brigham Young University.

She plans to spend more time in the classroom and less time at the luge track next year — as hard as that might be.

For now, the focus is the Torino Games. A gold medal would be nice, but that's not why she's going. She's thrilled for the chance to represent her country.

"I'm just there for the experience," Despain said. "A lot of the athletes have been doing it all their lives. I'm good enough to compete with the best, but I'm not good enough to beat them."

E-mail: sisraelsen@desnews.com