17-year-old luger Kate Hansen surprising herself

Kate Hansen still hasn’t discussed Olympic plans, such as finding hotel rooms and tickets, with her family.

Might be time to speed up that process.

The 17-year-old, sandals-wearing, ukulele-playing high school senior from Southern California was a surprise winner of USA Luge‘s race-off series this fall. Now, Hansen has a spot on the World Cup roster and a real chance to compete in the Vancouver Olympics, something even she thought was a farfetched notion.

“No one really thought it’s going to happen,” Hansen said Monday. “Including me.”

Think again, kid.

And yes, her parents are now looking into Vancouver hotels.

“We didn’t want to put any pressure on Kate before,” said Hansen’s mother, Kathie Hansen. “We’re just going with the flow. We’re kind of a little shocked.”

Hansen’s path to the Olympics will not be easy. Making the World Cup team doesn’t assure her anything other than a chance to compete in the first two races on the international circuit, starting this weekend in Calgary, Alberta and then Nov. 28-29 in Igls, Austria. If she doesn’t collect a top-nine finish in either race, she’ll need to re-qualify to keep her spot on the World Cup team.

Still, just having an Olympic chance is enough to keep the La Canada (pronounced KAN-ya-da), Calif. native more than happy these days.

“I cannot stop thinking about it,” Hansen said. “At the beginning of this process, it was all just ‘OK, I’m going to do my best.’ But as each race has gone by, it’s becoming more and more real. And I think about it all … the … time. I think about finally calling my parents and being like ‘Mom, guess what?’ Or sending that text to my friends saying it’s going to happen. It’s been my dream for so long.”

As luge stories often do, Hansen’s started on a lark.

Born and raised in Southern California, Hansen got started as a 10-year-old at a USA Luge slider search event in Long Beach, Calif., earning an invitation to Lake Placid. For someone with palm trees in the yard, a love of surfing and an absolute hatred of cold weather, luge didn’t seem like a natural fit.

Luge seemed more a hobby than anything else until 2008, when Hansen won the junior national title. From there, she’s been flying. Schoolwork largely gets done over the Internet thanks to some understanding teachers, friends keep in touch by texting and Facebook. No one in her circle really gets luge, Hansen said – but they all know the significance of the Olympics.

“I never thought this would happen in a million years,” Hansen said.

This wasn’t a fluke, either. Hansen dominated the race-off series.

Her spot on the World Cup team was formally wrapped up Sunday, when she won a two-run qualifying race in Whistler, British Columbia – the sliding site for the 2010 Games and the track where she broke two vertebrae in a scary crash last year. Hansen’s two-run time Sunday of 1 minute, 40.975 seconds was more than seven-tenths ahead of any other U.S. racer, a huge gap in a sport like luge.

She won the four-race series with 261 1/2 points, 55 more than runner-up Megan Sweeney.

“I’m just trying to be myself,” Hansen said. “I’m trying to be happy. If I’m happy, I’m good to go.”

She’s happy right now, for certain. Hansen will join reigning world champion Erin Hamlin, Julia Clukey and Sweeney on the World Cup roster.

“I’m having fun, and when I’m having fun, I slide really well,” Hansen said. “When it starts getting super-intense, I don’t know what will happen. We’ll see.”