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Two local sisters are sliding toward Olympic luge spots

A little more than a year after taking their first ride on a luge, two Framingham sisters are training with the USA Luge Junior Development Team in Lake Placid, N.Y.

Ceilidh and Liz MacNeill are to be at the US Olympic Training Center through Jan. 20, gearing up for their first competition, next month's Verizon US Youth National Seeding Races and Championship.

The sisters are coached by Duncan Kennedy, a three-time Olympian and the country's most successful singles slider. Competitors in the sport, which made its Olympic debut at the 1964 Games in Innsbruck, Austria, lie on their backs on small sleds and race down icy tracks.

''It's kind of like you're going on a normal sled, but it's a lot faster, and you steer with different [parts] of your body," said Liz MacNeill, 11. ''Instead of using a string attached to the end of a sled, you use your legs, your shoulders, and your head, and sometimes your hands."

The girls' father was reading a local newspaper in 2003 when he noticed an advertisement for the Verizon-USA Luge Slider Search. The nationwide recruitment tour, which targets 11- to 14-year-olds for the Junior Development Team, made a stop in Holliston and set up a paved course in an industrial park.

''I thought it was something fun to do on a Sunday morning, and they had never heard of luge before that day," Malcolm MacNeill said.

His daughters and other participants were shown the basics of the luges, which were equipped with wheels for the event. Then they were sent down the course, dodging hay bales and weaving among cones.

''It was really wet and cold and slippery, and we were dripping wet as we walked up the hill," said Ceilidh, 13. ''We never expected it to go this far."

The MacNeills were invited to Lake Placid that December. Sled wheels were replaced with steels, and the girls tried the luges on ice for the first time. They returned to Lake Placid last March, and their selection for the Junior Development Team was followed by summer and fall training sessions.

The sisters, who race in singles, now approach speeds of 50 miles per hour on the racing sleds.

''I love the speed and just the rush," Ceilidh said. ''You see a big sheet of white all around you. Sometimes, when I really want to feel the sled, I just close my eyes. It almost feels like you're flying."

The girls' track time at Lake Placid is limited compared with that of other, more skilled athletes. They spend much of their time practicing starts in the luge office or at the gym, throwing the medicine ball, running, and doing push-ups, sit-ups, and pull-ups.

Liz is the youngest team member and the smallest at 4 feet 5 inches and 76 pounds.

''It's fine," she said. ''It just means you kind of work harder to catch up with the rest of the team."

The girls live in a dorm with fellow team members, including Allison Bradley of Stow and Richard Metrick of Franklin, and other Olympic athletes training in volleyball, ski jumping, speed skating, and skeleton, a sport in which competitors ride a luge-like sled headfirst.

''It inspires you to really do well, and it teaches you really good sportsmanship," Ceilidh said. ''You just can't get angry over having a bad day. It teaches you respect for the people around you."

The girls are students at the Fay School in Southborough.

''Both have managed to maintain honors while they were up there," their father said. ''If their grades start to slip, we'll have to reconsider the whole thing."

The MacNeills say that being together makes training away from home easier to handle.

''It's just sisterly to compete and have our little bickering," Ceilidh said. ''But I think it would be more difficult not to have [Liz] here, because I need someone I know and love really well to be with me."

The MacNeills' next step in the USA Luge organization would be the Junior Candidate Team, the second of six development levels for athletes eyeing spots on the Senior National and Olympic Luge Teams. With Olympic reminders all around them, competing in future games is the ultimate goal.

''We're really pushing hard to get up there," Liz said. ''We look up to people on higher teams and we're saying, 'I wish I could be there.' There are a lot of people who want to take our place, so if we mess up, we're gone."

TEACHERS, PHONE HOME -- When news of the devastating Indian Ocean tsunamis reached the United States, the thoughts of faculty and staff members at the Fay School in Southborough turned toward their former colleagues, Susan and Dean Greenberg.

After teaching at the boarding school for 17 years, the Greenbergs accepted two-year contracts to teach at Saigon South International School in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. The couple was traveling in Sri Lanka during school vacation when the massive waves hit that country.

The Greenbergs had spent two weeks in India before flying on Dec. 25 to Bandaranaike International Airport, 21 miles north of Colombo, Sri Lanka's largest port city and commercial hub. They headed straight inland from the airport the next day, 62 miles west to the town of Kitulgala. The avid birders were staying at the Rafter's Retreat eco camp, in a treehouse over the Kelani River, with no television or phone.

''We didn't know about the tsunami until we left there two days after the event and went to a bigger hotel in Nuwara Eliya, in the mountains, with TV and BBC World News," Susan Greenberg stated in an e-mail from Vietnam. ''By the time we could call family to tell them we were safe, they had been very worried and had contacted various authorities, trying to find out about us."

Greenberg urges those who have scheduled trips to areas of Sri Lanka not affected by the tsunami to follow through with their plans. Tourist money, she said, provides jobs and will help rebuild the nation's economy.

''We feel very lucky that, because our trip was one mainly planned to watch birds, the beach areas were not on our itinerary," Greenberg said. ''We feel great sadness for the Sri Lankans who suffered during such a tragedy. They are wonderful people, friendly, helpful, and kind."

While the Greenbergs finished their Sri Lankan vacation and returned to Vietnam on New Year's Eve as planned, many others canceled their hotel bookings, even for inland properties. The hotel they stayed at in Nuwara Eliya had been booked solid for New Year's, but all but one reservation had been canceled when the Greenbergs left.

''Of course, the sadness in Sri Lanka, even miles from the disaster, was palpable," Greenberg said. ''As most Sri Lankans are Buddhist, we saw many white prayer flags and banners flying from homes and across streets as we drove from the hill country to the airport.

''We stopped at a small cafe on our way to the airport as one minute's silence for the dead was being observed. At the airport, the TVs in the waiting room were broadcasting a Buddhist prayer ceremony."

The Greenbergs' friends at the Fay School received word that they were fine via e-mail. The couple had lived on the school campus, where Susan taught English and was director of residential life, and Dean taught physical science and environmental values.

Connie Mortara of Hudson, the school's registrar, had posted a message inquiring about the Greenbergs' whereabouts on the BBC News website. ''The whole school was looking for them: The Web is great for that," she said.

AROUND THE TOWNS -- The Supreme Judicial Court has appointed Alan D. Rose of Wellesley as chairman of the Board of Bar Overseers, on which he has served for two years. Justices named J. Charles Mokriski of Newton and Francis J. Russell of Shrewsbury to four-year terms on the board, which investigates allegations of professional misconduct by lawyers. . . . Westborough High School senior Albert Lee has been selected to sing in the 2005 All-Eastern Division Chorus. The tenor will perform at the Baltimore Convention Center on March 6 with a chorus of 340 students from 12 Eastern states. Lee, who sings with the concert choir and chamber ensemble at Westborough High School, is preparing for the event with music teacher Joseph Stillitano.

People news may be sent to dgoodison@verizon.net.  

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