’14 Need To Knows: Luge

By Paul D. Bowker | Jan. 16, 2014, 11 a.m. (ET)

Christian Niccum and Jayson Terdiman compete in the doubles competition during the Viessmann Luge World Cup event at Utah Olympic Park Dec. 13, 2013 in Park City, Utah. 

USA Luge announced its Olympic nominees for the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games, and it features 10 sliders including 2010 Olympian Chris Mazdzer and 2009 world champion Erin Hamlin. Team USA was allowed spots for three men's singles entrants, three women’s entrants and a pair of doubles sleds. The luge sliders hope to bring home medals in the traditional events in Sochi as well as in the luge team relay, which is making its debut on the Olympic program in 2014.

CHASING AMERICAN HISTORY

Erin Hamlin, who has competed in the 2006 and 2010 Olympic Winter Games is chasing the record books. A podium finish in Sochi would make her the first woman in USA Luge history to win an Olympic medal. Hamlin won a world championship in 2009 and finished 12th in women’s singles at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games. She has five top-10 finishes in the 2013-14 world cup season.

DOUBLE DUTY?
Chris Mazdzer finishes his final run at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games on Feb. 14, 2010 in Whistler, British Columbia.

Chris Mazdzer was the first luge athlete to be nominated to the 2014 U.S. Olympic Team after his strong world cup finishes in men’s singles this season. The 2014 Winter Games would be his second. Mazdzer won his first world cup medal in early December when he claimed silver at the 2010 Olympic course in Whistler, B.C., and then he followed that up with another silver medal a week later in Park City, Utah. Mazdzer later helped the United States win a silver medal in the world cup team relay in Park City as well. Mazdzer could be in position to win the first Olympic men’s singles medal in U.S. history. “It’s so competitive in the sport right now,” he said. “Anyone in the top six can medal.”

TEAM USA MEDAL CONTENDERS

The 10-member team that was nominated for Sochi (pending approval by the United States Olympic Committee) is packed with Olympic experience. Erin Hamlin, a world champion in women’s singles in 2009, is headed for her third Olympic Games, as is doubles slider Christian Niccum. Chris Mazdzer, who finished the first half of the 2013-14 season in fifth place in the world cup standings, is readying for his second Olympic Winter Games. Preston Griffall, another doubles slider, is also headed for his second Winter Games, although he is going to Sochi with a different partner (Matt Mortensen) than he did in Torino in 2006 (Dan Joye). A strong wave of first-time Olympic lugers consists of Summer Britcher and Kate Hansen, women’s singles; Tucker West and Aidan Kelly, men’s singles; Matt Mortensen and Jayson Terdiman, men’s doubles. Britcher, 19, is one year out of high school.

WANTED: MEDAL IN SINGLES

American doubles teams took both the silver and bronze medals in 1998 and 2002, but going into Sochi, Team USA is still seeking its first Olympic medals in men’s and women’s singles luge. U.S. lugers have won gold at the international level, though.

FROM BROKEN FOOT TO OLYMPIC BERTH
Kate Hansen hits the touch pad during the team relay competition at the Viessmann Luge World Cup event on Dec. 14, 2013 in Park City, Utah. 

Kate Hansen began her season by breaking her foot after slamming it into a wall during a training session in October. She emerged from the accident in tears but still managed to secure a spot on the U.S. world cup team in a selection race four days later. In December, Hansen secured her spot on the 2014 U.S. Olympic Team on the same track in Park City, Utah. “It’s been a long two months and I am just grateful to come out in one piece,” she said. At 15 in 2008, Hansen became the youngest USA Luge athlete to win a world title at the Junior Luge World Championships.

DOUBLE TROUBLE

Mark Grimmette and Brian Martin are the only team in U.S. history to win luge medals in consecutive Olympic Winter Games, earning a bronze medal in 1998 and a silver medal in 2002. The duo competed in their fourth and final Winter Games together in 2010 in Vancouver. Together they won more than 60 international medals for the highest count in USA Luge history. Grimmette actually competed in five Winter Games, beginning with the Lillehammer 1994 Olympic Winter Games, and was the Team USA flag bearer at the Opening Ceremony in Vancouver. He is now the sports program director at USA Luge.

THE MEDALS

In all, four sets of medals will be handed out for a total of 12. The competitions will be men’s singles, women’s singles, doubles (men’s) and the new mixed team relay event. The United States is looking for its first medals in luge since the Salt Lake City 2002 Olympic Winter Games, when Grimmette and Martin won the silver medal in doubles, and Chris Thorpe and Clay Ives earned the bronze medal in doubles.

DATES TO REMEMBER

The 2014 Olympic luge competition will occur over six consecutive days, beginning the day after the Opening Ceremony on Feb. 8. There will be two days of men’s singles competition, followed by two days of women’s singles. Athletes will have two runs per day, with the combined time from four runs determining the medal winners. The doubles event will be held Feb. 12; each team will get two runs. The new team relay event will conclude luge Feb. 13.

DEBUT OF THE RELAY
(L-R) Matt Mortensen, Chris Mazdzer, Kate Hansen and Preston
Griffall pose for a photo after finishing second in the team relay competition during the Viessmann Luge World Cup event on
Dec. 14, 2013 in Park City, Utah.

The team relay event will make its Olympic debut in Sochi. The event consists of a women’s singles slider, a men’s singles slider and a doubles team who race consecutively over the course. After each of the first two segments, the slider hits a touchpad at the finish line that then opens up the starting gate for the sled in the next segment. A nation’s time determined when an athlete from the doubles team hits a touchpad. The gold-medal favorite is Germany, which won the world cup team relay points championship in 2012-13 and is the leader in the 2013-14 season standings. But the United States won the silver medal in the team relay at the Park City World Cup in December and finished the first half of the season in second place.

THE VENUE

The Sanki Sliding Centre will be host to luge, bobsled and skeleton. The facility is located at the Alpika Service Mountain Ski Resort and is the first extensive sliding center to be built in Russia. State-of-the-art technology will allow for controlled temperatures along the entire course. The course finishes at Rzhanaya Polyana with a seating area for 9,000 spectators. A world cup event was held in February 2012 at the Sanki Centre and a week of international training was held there this past November.

READY … START

Unlike bobsled, in which athletes push the sled at the start of the race and then jump in for the ride, luge athletes begin their run in a seated position pushing with their hands and then stretching out on the sled feet first. Gloves have spikes on them so that athletes can push off effectively. Athletes steer the sled by moving their bodies from one side of the sled to the other, usually at very high speeds. Luge sleds reach speeds of up to 140 kilometers per hour (87 miles per hour).

G-FORCE TIMES FIVE

The G-forces (gravitational forces) on a luge athlete are tremendous, sometimes reaching a G-force level of five. In comparison, an astronaut experiences a G-force of about three during a rocket launch. The speed of the sled over ice, and the quick acceleration that is a result of it, propels the athletes down the course and whips them around icy turns at nearly 90 miles an hour. Lugers will reach the end of a mile-long track in less than a minute. Tony Benshoof, a three-time Olympian who finished fourth at the Torino 2006 Olympic Winter Games, hit a record speed of 86.6 miles per hour in 2001, which was recognized by the Guinness World Records as the fastest speed ever recorded on a luge. Benshoof, the most decorated men's slider in USA Luge history with 37 international medals, retired after 22 years on the national team in 2011.

EQUIPMENT

A luge athlete’s equipment is simple, but so necessary. It consists of a race suit that reduces wind resistance (after all, the goal is to go as fast as you can), a helmet with a visor (to protect the head in case of a crash), gloves with spikes, and shoes with specially designed zippers so that an athlete can straighten out his or her foot when on the sled. Average cost: More than $1,000, including $350 for the racing suit.

HISTORY LESSON

Although luge made its Olympic debut at the Innsbruck 1964 Olympic Winter Games, the sport has a much longer history. The first luge track was built in Switzerland in 1879. Historic evidence has shown the Vikings using sleds as early as the year 800 in the Slagen countryside near the Oslo Fjord. East Germany and Austria combined to win eight of the nine inaugural Olympic medals in 1964. The United States first medaled at the Nagano 1998 Olympic Winter Games, when Gordy Sheer and Christopher Thorpe earned the silver medal in doubles, and Mark Grimmette and Brian Martin earned a bronze medal.

Paul D. Bowker has been writing about Olympic sports since 1990 and was Olympic assistant bureau chief for Morris Communications at the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games. He also writes about Olympic sports for the Springfield (Mass.) Republican. Bowker has written for TeamUSA.org since 2010 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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