By Ian Ransom
PYEONGCHANG (Reuters) - Stories of sacrifice abound among Olympians but Taiwanese luger Lien Te-an has quite literally taken the hard road to get to the Winter Games in Pyeongchang.
With little snow in his steamy homeland and no proper luge tracks to speak of, Lien speeds down mountain highways in the eastern county of Yilan on a wheeled sled when not training in the ice abroad.
Reaching speeds of 105 km per hour, it can be a white-knuckle ride for Lien but also quite startling for car and truck drivers when the 23-year-old whizzes past them while lying supine on his sled.
"We take off the steels (blades) and put on the wheels and we can train everywhere in Taiwan," he told Reuters in an interview at the Pyeongchang athletes village on Wednesday.
"The cars will often stop to take a look at what's going on.
"When we're training, we organise people to do some traffic management to make it safer. There will be people along the road up and down the mountains using walkie-talkies."
Competing in his second Olympics, Lien will carry Taiwan's flag during Friday's opening ceremony, leading a tiny delegation of four athletes, three of them speed skaters.
Few of his compatriots back home had much clue about luge, or many of the other winter sports, said Lien, but he is determined to raise their profile while improving on his 39th placing at the Sochi Games.
"This time I got more experience because in 2014 in Sochi, it was my first time in the Olympic Games and I was so really nervous," Lien said.
"But this time I spent four years to get more confidence, to get more experience and also courage."
His heart swelled with pride during Taiwan's welcoming ceremony at the athletes' village on Wednesday, but overnight he was frantically calling his mother in the wake of an earthquake that struck near her home-town of Hualien late on Tuesday.
The magnitude 6.4 quake killed at least four people and injured 225, with about 145 still missing, many believed to be trapped in buildings.
"When it happened I quickly gave my mum a call and everything's OK with her. But I was really nervous," he said.
Taiwanese parents can be quite protective of their children and naturally wary about them taking up extreme sports, but Lien has had the full support from his own.
He puts it down to his heritage as an Atayal, one of Taiwan's 14 recognized indigenous minorities.
Before modern times, the Atayal were fierce warriors who would award their men facial tattoos when they claimed the head of an enemy.
"My family's pretty open-minded about things... We're quite a different culture," said Lien, a student at a sports university on the outskirts of Taipei.
"It's fair to say that we are a carefree people and we are not scared of anything.
"We have more courage and we want to try everything. We believe that we can do anything."
Bringing home a medal rather than a head from Pyeongchang would surely be worthy of an honorary tattoo but Lien just hopes to crack the top 10 and inspire a few more Taiwanese to strive for a Winter Games.
The opening runs of the men's singles in the luge event start Saturday at the Olympic Sliding Centre.
"It'll be a bit tough for him to get a medal but I think if he just gets a personal best here and finishes the best luger from Asia, I don't think that will be too hard for him," Lien's coach Chin Hao-ching told Reuters.
"He's already an inspiration."
(Editing by John O'Brien)