LAKE PLACID, N.Y. — Last week, Tucker West didn’t qualify for the season’s first FIL World Cup. This week, he won.
The 19-year-old slider — the youngest male to ever make the U.S. luge team in singles — not only won, he shattered the track record at the Mt. Van Hoevenberg Olympic Sports Complex. Twice.
West finished two runs in 1:42.117 to best runner-up Wolfgang Kindl from Austria by 0.773 seconds and Dominik Fischnaller from Italy by 1.064. World cup leader and two-time defending Olympic gold medalist Felix Loch (Germany) finished sixth.
“I just felt good today, being on home track, having my parents and family and friends watching,” said West, happy but dazed by what he had just accomplished. “Everything just kind of came together, and the stars aligned.”
West is the first male U.S. luge slider to win a singles race since 1997, when Wendel Suckow won the pre-Olympic world cup in Nagano, Japan. West is also the youngest singles winner in U.S. luge history, and it was his first world cup in Lake Placid.
It’s been a quick rise for the kid who famously began his luge career in his backyard. While many parents build their kids tree houses, West’s dad, Brett, constructed a luge run in their backyard in Ridgefield, Connecticut.
The 485-foot-long wooden slide — resembling a 19th century gold mining sluice — still stands. And Brett West said that his son will no doubt slide down it next time he’s home.
Brett West built it after he and Tucker watched luge on TV during the Salt Lake City 2002 Olympic Winter Games. At the time, Tucker was 7 years old. The homemade luge run is iced down when weather allows, and store-bought plastic sleds serve as their luge sleds. The track loses 35 feet in elevation, and Brett said maximum speed is 35 mph.
“It definitely made me into a little bit of a daredevil so I was able to hurl myself down here at 80 miles an hour,” said Tucker with a laugh.
Gordy Sheer, 1998 Olympic silver medalist and now USA Luge’s director of marketing, introduced Tucker to “real” luge after traveling to Connecticut to see for himself the crazy luge run that he had read about. Sheer called Tucker’s world cup win “a shellacking.”
“To not just win but win in such a convincing fashion,” said Sheer after the Lake Placid race. “This is like a vintage Georg Hackl performance out of a kid who’s 19 years old.”
Retired German luger Georg Hackl is a three-time Olympic and world champion.
But from the start of Tucker’s first run, a win — let alone a shellacking — did not look like it was in his future. He hit the track wall in turn three, and the crowd winced. But for the rest of the run — he flew, breaking the track record by over a half-second.
Between runs, Tucker tried not to think about anything but luge basics. But his dad, who thought Tucker would either win or finish last, was nervous.
“I was just looking for a toilet to throw up in,” Brett confessed with a laugh. “I couldn’t take it.”
Second run, Tucker again broke the track record.
“Waking up today, the goal was to win,” he said. “But these are some of the top dogs. I never knew that I could compete with them at such a level.”
Especially after he had a frustrating month of training. Last week in Igls, Austria, he did not even qualify to compete in the world cup. But coaches knew he was close.
“From the beginning of the season, he’s shown that he has a lot of speed,” said Mark Grimmette, USA Luge sport program director and a two-time Olympic medalist. “He’s been making driving errors here and there. It’s just a matter of cleaning up the runs a bit. He showed himself what he can do.”
“I haven’t had a clean run pretty much any training session,” added West. “So to have this is a huge confidence boost. Hopefully the tides are turning.”
Olympians Chris Mazdzer and Aidan Kelly finished fourth and seventh, respectively. It was Kelly’s best world cup result to date. Riley Stohr finished 11th in his world cup debut.
The U.S. doubles luge also had a good day. The new team of Matt Mortensen and Jayson Terdiman finished sixth, one place better than their world cup debut last weekend.
“If we continue at this pace the next few races, we’re looking pretty good!” said the affable Terdiman.
The two men first paired together last March after returning from Sochi. Mortensen’s partner, Preston Griffall, had announced that he was stepping back from luge; Terdiman’s partner, Christian Niccum, retired at age 36.
Size and friendship brought the two together on the sled. Six-foot-tall Mortensen knew that he would likely do better with a smaller bottom man. Terdiman is 5-feet-8-inches tall — although Niccum used to joke that he was closer to 5-foot-7. His old bottom man, Griffall, is 5-10.
The partnership went well from the beginning.
“We took 17 runs and hit zero walls right off the bat,” said Terdiman. “It as pretty cool.”
Lugers lose speed when they hit the track walls.
“They’re meshing very well together,” said Grimmette. “They get along with one another real well. They know how to communicate with one another well. They’re really positive for each other.”
Coming into the world cup season, which began on a warm day last weekend in Igls, Austria, the two men had no idea what to expect. But they quickly learned that they had speed. All they need now is more experience together.
Experience in doubles is key. Partners like German Olympic champions Tobias Wendl and Tobias Arlt — runners-up in the Lake Placid World Cup — and the Sics brothers from Latvia (two-time Olympic medalists and fourth in Lake Placid) have been sliding together since they were kids.
“The more runs we get together, the more confidence we’ll build, the better our sliding will be and the faster we’ll go,” said Terdiman. “Who knows? Maybe we’ll shock the world in one of these races here.”
Just like Tucker West.
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered three Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.