Christ Mazdzer makes a run during the luge relay on day 6 of the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games at Sliding Center Sanki on Feb. 13, 2014 in Sochi, Russia
There’s a first time for everything. Competing in the inaugural luge team relay event, a part of Olympic history sped down the track once Erin Hamlin broke through the starting gate.
While it was not the type of “first” the U.S. luge team hoped for, a sixth-place finish for Erin Hamlin, Chris Mazdzer and the doubles team of Christian Niccum and Jayson Terdiman was still cause for a celebratory atmosphere amidst a week filled with history and new hope for the U.S. luge program.
“As a luge athlete, to compete in two events is incredible,” said Sochi Olympic bronze medalist Erin Hamlin. “It’s been amazing, and it’s exciting for us to have another opportunity to win a medal. Obviously that didn’t happen here today, but getting this event in the Olympic Winter Games is great for luge in general.”
The new event features each country’s fastest woman, man and doubles team, with the relay held in this order. The race also features a new dimension — a pad that each athlete is required to tap once they cross the finish line. Once the women hit the pad, a green light is triggered, the gate opens, and it’s off to the races for the men.
In a competition that, in addition to the typical room for error found at every corner in luge, presents the opportunity for disqualification twice per run — teams are disqualified if an athlete touches the gate before it opens — the reaction time on each leg is a unique factor critical to a country landing on the podium.
The result? A thrilling event tailored to the fan experience.
“It adds more excitement to the sport, and I think it’s fan-friendly,” Hamlin added. “People get excited and countries can rally behind their team. Pitting team against team is always fun.”
Flags, signs, noisemakers, decorative face paint and patriotic pajamas blanketed the cheering section as the athletes crossed the finish line and families nervously looked on to witness history. One could easily mistake the scene for a rowdy soccer match in the Premier League.
Olympic newcomer Terdiman noted, “I’m a huge fan. The relay is one of my favorite parts of this sport. It’s a fan favorite without a doubt, and it’s the loudest cheering section in luge I’ve ever heard.”
Ranked third overall in the team relay world cup standings, the U.S. looked to contend with the field Thursday night in an event that saw it on the world cup podium twice this year. Riding the high of her historic bronze-medal performance on Wednesday, Hamlin blazed through the track and posted the second-fastest women’s time of the night in 54.338 seconds.
Her performance was not enough, however, as the team combined for a time of 2:47.555 — 1.906 behind the dominant Germans who took home the gold medal, followed by the Russians and the Latvians.
Regardless of the outcome, a sense of camaraderie and unity was tangible among the U.S. group.
Mazdzer, no stranger to big moments as the first American men’s singles slider to win a world cup medal in seven years, spoke about the team-oriented atmosphere the relay brings. “We really enjoy this. We’re all excited at the top before races. At the start, we relax together and encourage each other,” said the two-time Olympian. “Being up on the leaderboard with your team — that’s what it’s all about.”
On a chilly night at the Sanki Sliding Center, International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach joined in on the fun to congratulate his home country on the win that helped usher in a new era for luge.
“I love this sport and have been doing it for a long time. To be a part of something for the first time, it’s something I will tell my kids and grandkids someday,” said Terdiman. It’s incredible, and I’m glad I can be a part of it.”
With Hamlin garnering the first-ever U.S. Olympic medal in singles luge and the debut of the team relay event tonight, a bright future lies ahead for Team USA sliders.