Jayson Terdiman and Christian Niccum finished third in doubles luge at the Winterberg World Cup in Germany last Saturday.
It was a bright start for the new doubles team and harkens back 14 years to the debut of another doubles team: Mark Grimmette and Brian Martin, America’s most decorated lugers. Before they earned two Olympic medals and six World Championship bronzes, Grimmette and Martin won a bronze medal at their first World Cup in December 1996.
Terdiman and Niccum only paired up last spring. Niccum’s partner Dan Joye retired after the 2010 Olympics, and Niccum decided to call Terdiman, whose partner Chris Mazdzer was focused on singles. Niccum, 32, is the second oldest athlete on the luge World Cup now, and Terdiman, 21, is one of the youngest guys in senior’s luge.
But as Grimmette, points out, “Sometimes a doubles team just clicks together.”
Grimmette also retired after the 2010 Olympics and now coaches the U.S. team.
Niccum and Terdiman fit together well on the sled, and they also share a work ethic.
“Jayson doesn’t know how to give up, and that’s important for us as a team,” said Niccum, who knows all too well about not giving up. Until last weekend, he went 12 years without winning a World Cup medal.
Not giving up comes naturally to Terdiman.
He was born with strep B, a serious infection that infants occasionally contract during childbirth. He lived in an incubator and underwent two spinal taps in the first two weeks of his life.
“He fought through all that,” his mom, Kathryn Terdiman, says. “For his first two years, he was constantly back and forth to the hospital.”
An only child, Jayson was “like a gift to us,” adds Mrs. Terdiman. “I knew then that there must be something that he had to do.”
While visiting his great-grandmother in Florida, five-year-old Jayson saw an older gentleman drowning at the bottom of a pool and ran to get his dad, Jay Terdiman. The older man survived, and Mrs. Terdiman says, “I thought maybe that was [what he had to do].”
Growing up in Berwick, Pennsylvania, Terdiman had yet to discover luge. But he quickly became a gifted athlete and student. Despite his size (he claims to be 5’8”, but Niccum jokes that Terdiman is really 5’7”), he loved basketball, baseball, and even football.
When he was about six, he drew the Olympic rings and an American flag on the front of a t-shirt. When asked what sport his son hoped to compete in, Mr. Terdiman says, “He was going to do every sport!”
But Terdiman knew he was too small for football, so he ran cross-country and played baseball in high school instead.
He also loved speed. Although he didn’t know it at first.
“We paid him $5 to get on a rollercoaster his first time because he was afraid of it,” says Mr. Terdiman.
Jayson looked at the $5, then looked up at the ride, and decided it was worth it.
“After that, he couldn’t get enough,” says Mr. Terdiman.
Family vacations often involved camping trips to amusement parks.
When Jayson was 11, Mrs. Terdiman saw a flier for USA Luge’s Slider Search, the national recruiting program for athletes ages 11-14. Given her son’s penchant for rollercoasters, she thought he might like luge.
Terdiman tried out and was invited to a luge camp in Lake Placid, New York. The next year, he was named to the development team.
“I love the speed,” he says. “When you’re in the moment, you let go of everything else and you go after that extra little bit of speed.”
Given his size, he was a natural bottom man in doubles luge. The aerodynamics of doubles work best with a taller top man and shorter bottom man. Terdiman is also a naturally explosive athlete, which helps him have a great start, says Grimmette.
Paired with Mazdzer, Terdiman was racing internationally by junior year in high school. He competed in cross-country through the fall, then left for luge training and competition. His parents told him he could compete in luge as long as he kept his grades up.
After one long absence from school, the young slider was walking down the hall of his school and ran into the principal, who said, “Terdiman, I just got a report on my desk that says you’ve been out of school 44 days. How are your grades?”
“Distinguished honors,” replied Terdiman.
“Oh, no problem then,” said the principal.
Terdiman maintained distinguished honors through graduation and even taught himself calculus while on the road for luge.
During his senior year, Terdiman traveled with Mazdzer to the 2007 Junior World Championships in Italy and won a bronze medal. Then the duo took the silver at 2008 Junior Worlds. They also won six silvers on the Junior World Cup and finished second overall in 2008.
The two raced as seniors in first three World Cups of the 2008/09 season — finishing as high as 14th. But then Mazdzer focused on singles — and making the 2010 Olympic team.
“I saw it coming,” says Terdiman when asked if it was hard to lose his partner.
“He knew it was going to be all right,” adds Mrs. Terdiman.
Terdiman didn’t make the traveling team last year so was happy when Niccum called him in March 2010. Niccum and Joye finished sixth in the 2010 Olympics, then Joye retired.
Doubles is a sport that benefits from experience. The best teams in the world have been together for years, if not decades, and a few are brothers; for example, the Linger brothers from Austria are two-time Olympic gold medalists, and the Sics from Latvia are Olympic silver medalists. Grimmette and Martin teamed together for 14 years.
“Yes, doubles benefits from experience, but not all of that experience has to come from sliding together,” says Grimmette. “Christian has many years of doubles experience, and Jayson has a few himself. Combining this into a winning team requires communication, and they are doing a great job of solving problems on the sled.”
“It would be a lot easier if we had been teammates for 20 years,” adds Niccum. “But going down that hill, there’s only one way to do it right. As long as we get on that sled and find that right way, we can be fast.”
Although Niccum is 11 years older than Terdiman, the two shared similar success as juniors. Niccum and then partner Matt McClain won four Junior Worlds titles together in the mid-1990s, then competed successfully as seniors on the World Cup circuit, earning five medals, two of them gold.
And Terdiman has a similar build to McClain, points out Gordy Sheer, 1998 Olympic silver medalist in doubles luge and now USA Luge’s marketing director.
“I think that may explain a little bit of the success right out of the box,” says Sheer.
In their first World Cup, held November 27, 2010, in Igls, Austria, Niccum and Terdiman were a surprise fifth.
“The coaching staff had a good feeling about them, and last week proved they have speed,” says Grimmette. “There is still a lot of work to do, but that was a great start.”
At the second World Cup in Winterberg last weekend, they found themselves in the leader’s box again.
“It’s definitely an experience I hadn’t expected this year,” says Terdiman.
After the race, from the hotel lobby, Terdiman called his mom back home in Pennsylvania using Skype. She looked at her son’s huge grin on the computer monitor and could tell he wanted to explode with joy but didn’t want to gloat in the crowded lobby.
So she danced around the living room for him. “I was so happy for them,” she says.
Asked if they have revamped their goals for the season, both Niccum and Terdiman say no.
“We’re just going to keep on doing our best every week and see where we finish,” says Terdiman. “Hopefully, we can stay consistent every week. I think top five would be good.”
“But I’d like to stay on the podium.”
Peggy Shinn is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.