By Paul D. Bowker | Sept. 26, 2012, 12 p.m. (ET)
Erin Hamlin
Erin Hamlin competes during the Luge Women's Singles on Day 5 of the 2010 Olympic Winter Games on Feb. 16, 2010

In luge, the start is everything.

“A fast start is critical to be competitive in the race, and our training is geared toward faster starts,” said USA Luge National Team coach Miro Zayonc, a native of the former Czechoslovakia who competed for the United States in the Calgary 1988 Olympic Winter Games. “The odds of making the podium improve with each hundredth of a second closer to the fastest start.”

How fast are the athletes on the USA Luge National Team? The answer will begin to arrive Thursday night in Lake Placid, N.Y., where the season-opening USA Luge Start Championships are held at the USA Luge Indoor Start Training Facility. Fans can watch the competition live online at www.usaluge.org at 7 p.m. ET.

Erin Hamlin, the world champion in 2009 in women’s singles, will be among the top contenders trying to win the crown. Ashley Walden, a 2002 Olympian who won 10 U.S. start championships, retired in December 2011.

“I feel great and can’t wait to see if it will pay off,” said Hamlin, 25, who spent the summer working to build upper-body strength to improve her starts.

In addition to lifting, pull-ups and shoulder work, Hamlin also worked out by paddling on wheels and in an ice rink, sometimes going uphill. She also tested new sled configurations and race-suit fabrics in a wind tunnel at the San Diego Air and Space Museum.

“This summer has been great,” she said. “I got back to my old routine after trying some new ideas out last year and it has paid off. My trainer and I made a point to keep all the focus on as much sports-specific exercises and workouts as possible, and I can easily say I am at my strongest overall right now.”

Chris Mazdzer, the 2012 Norton National Champion, will be among the top contenders in the men’s competition at the Start Championships. Tucker West won the 2011 title at the age of 16.

Clearly, Zayonc is expecting big things from 22-year-old Mazdzer this season. A 2010 Olympian and 2009 gold medalist at the World Junior Luge Championships, Mazdzer got an early look at the luge course for the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games when he tested the 1,800-meter course last March.

“Chris Mazdzer is our best male athlete,” Zayonc said. “He is stronger, heavier and faster this year. We are looking for him to have his best season yet. Chris was winning World Cups as a junior a few years back. He was 13th at the 2010 Olympics. He is a very motivated athlete and has the ability to slide. With clean runs and good starts, he can surprise us.”

While the Start Championships ceremonially kick off the 2012-13 luge season for Team USA, the World Cup season begins in November, and the national team will train in Sochi during the first week of the month. The season’s first World Cup event will be held Nov. 24 and 25 in Igls, Austria. The World Cup season also includes a February 2013 stop in Lake Placid, followed by the last World Cup event in Sochi on Feb. 23-24.

The competition in Sochi will come less than a year before the 2014 Winter Games in that city begin.

“We obviously always want to do well and, yes, with an Olympic Games right around the corner, more emphasis is put on good results and peaking at the right time,” Hamlin said. “Going to Sochi for the first time is important for us, as well, but I still take it week by week, race by race. I will be competing in two full seasons before the Games, and while Sochi is definitely lingering in the back of my mind, I am very focused on the here and now.”

USA Luge’s high hopes for podium finishes at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games also led to the hiring of Zayonc as national coach, a significant move because Mark Grimmette is now USA Luge Sports Program Director and assisting Zayonc as coach – instead of serving as program director and national head coach at the same time.

“It’s a great honor to lead our team to the Sochi Olympic Games,” Zayonc said. “I have been coaching successfully for over 20 years, and I want to use my experience [and] knowledge to help our athletes to be in position to medal in Sochi.

“This year, we want to improve our results from last season. We are looking for each athlete to be better than last season and, better yet, the Olympic season.”

Zayonc will be assisted by Bill Tavares, a 1992 Olympian, and former Soviet Union coach Klim Gatker, in addition to Grimmette, a two-time Olympic medalist in doubles for Team USA.

While Hamlin and Mazdzer lead the USA Luge National Team, the squad is packed with talent. Julia Clukey, a 2010 Olympian, is returning from a surgical procedure to relieve headaches and other symptoms caused by Arnold-Chiari malformation. Christian Niccum, a two-time Olympian, is returning from back surgery last April. Niccum and Jayson Terdiman ranked seventh in men’s doubles in last year’s overall World Cup. Matt Mortensen and Preston Griffall, who placed fifth in the Calgary World Cup last year, spent the summer training in Lake Placid as a part of the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program. Zayonc also believes that Kate Hansen and Emily Sweeney are looking strong on the women’s side.

All will be under the close watch of Zayonc at the Start Championships.

“The Start Championships is the first competition of the new season. It gets the athletes’ adrenaline flowing and it gives the athletes an opportunity to be rewarded for fast starts,” Zayonc said. “It is a good way for us to measure in what physical shape and how ready the athletes are for the season.”

Story courtesy Red Line Editorial, Inc. Paul D. Bowker is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.

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