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Luge Team Carries Momentum Into Season

By Karen Rosen | Nov. 27, 2014, 3:34 p.m. (ET)

Erin Hamlin competes in women's luge at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games st Sanki Sliding Center on Feb. 11, 2014 in Rosa Khutor, Russia.

Now that Erin Hamlin is the first U.S. athlete to win an individual Olympic luge medal, she and her teammates have no intention of letting things slide.

Hamlin cracked an exclusive club with her bronze medal at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games. The only other countries to win medals in women’s luge are Germany, Italy, Austria and the former Soviet Union.

“Erin is in a great position right now because she’s sliding really well,” said Mark Grimmette, USA Luge sport program director.

“She’s comfortable on her sled, and so she should be able to jump right into the competition where she left off last season.”

After intense summer and fall training, nine athletes make up the U.S. fall world cup team zooming down the icy track this weekend in Igls, Austria. The nine-stop world cup circuit will cross the pond for competition in Lake Placid, New York, Dec. 5-6, and Calgary, Alberta, Dec. 12-13. Racing will resume in January, culminating at the world championships in Sigulda, Latvia, in February. 

“Sometimes it’s a little bit difficult to stay motivated after an Olympic Games because you’ve got that Olympic high and then you’re coming down off that,” said Grimmette, a five-time Olympian who won the doubles silver medal in 2002 and the bronze in 1998 with partner Brian Martin.

“But our team as a whole has been working hard this summer to try to improve their chances for better success in the future.”

U.S. sliders took advantage of double sessions in fall training in Park City, Utah, and Calgary.

“This summer has been a ton of hard work, close to 100 runs under our belt already and four or five more going into the first world cup,” said men’s singles slider Aidan Kelly. “I think we’re all feeling pretty confident going into this first race.”

Hamlin Breaks Through — Again 

Erin Hamlin celebrates during the medal ceremony for women's luge at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games on Feb. 12, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.

Hamlin became world champion in 2009 in Lake Placid, smashing a 16-year German stranglehold on the title. She was a favorite going into the Vancouver Games, but the tragic death of a Georgian slider caused organizers to lower the starts for all competitors and Hamlin — more suited to longer tracks — wound up 16th.

In Sochi, Hamlin finally reached the Olympic podium on her third try (she was 12th in Torino, Italy).

“I feel like the Olympics gave me a little bit of a confidence boost,” said Hamlin, 27, who posted her sixth career U.S. title at the Norton USA Luge National Championship and won the preseason Lillehammer Cup in October.  “I don’t feel like I have any more pressure on me than any time in the past. I’m relieved with that.”

She said her equipment is basically the same as last year because it was running so well.  

Hamlin’s philosophy on training runs, however, has evolved.  “As a younger athlete, you want as many runs as possible to build up that experience,” she said. 

Now Hamlin has learned “to quit while I’m ahead and not beat runs to death. It can be easy to burn out if you keep taking runs and making the same mistake. If I get to the point where I figure something out and have solid runs, I don’t want to overdo it.”

New Techniques And New Technology

The arrival of new assistant coach Lubomir Mick, a two-time Olympian and coach from Slovakia, has brought a “fresh set of eyes and a more comfortable sled technology” for the men’s team, according to Kelly. “We have a new shell design this year which has been working out pretty well. The sled is more aerodynamic.”

Dow, a technical partner for USA Luge, has contributed to the design. “All of it is coming together and is just helping,” Kelly said, before refusing to reveal any secrets. “That’s all I can say.”

Competition On Women’s Side

Grimmette said that while Hamlin is on a level of her own, Julia Clukey, Summer Britcher and Emily Sweeney are “very close together in that second group.”  

Kate Hansen, a 2014 Olympian, is taking some time off.

“Our women’s field is very talented, and so depending on the track, any one of them could be faster than the other,” Grimmette said.

Clukey, a 2010 Olympian, missed the Sochi team by 0.01 seconds. The 2013 World Cup silver medalist in Lake Placid said she is on completely new equipment. “I’m tinkering and trying to adjust things along the way so it’s consistent and fast,” Clukey said.

Sweeney, the 2013 junior world champion, tried a different method of training at home over the summer. Rather than a lot of weight lifting to build mass, Sweeney said her workouts are more gymnastics-based. “I still feel powerful and explosive, just more comfortable overall,” she said.

Britcher, who competed in Sochi, has gained both strength and weight over the summer.

Men Coming On Strong

Chris Mazdzer takes a training run at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games on Feb. 7, 2014 in Rosa Khutor, Russia.

Chris Mazdzer, who posted a career-high fifth place overall world cup finish last winter, paid his own way this fall to train on the world cup track in Latvia.

Mazdzer won consecutive world cup silver medals at Whistler, B.C., and Park City last December.

“Chris was starting to show that he could compete with the best,” Grimmette said.

Mazdzer, who placed 13th at both the 2010 and 2014 Winter Games, won his sixth national title in November. However, his final margin of victory over Tucker West was just 0.076 seconds after the 19-year-old made up ground on the second day of competition.

West, the youngest male athlete to make the U.S. Olympic Luge Team, was sixth at the Lillehammer preseason race, where Grimmette said “he really showed that he’s made another step forward in his sliding.”

Grimmette added that West, whose father built a luge track in the family’s backyard is “one of the fastest starters in the world.”

“You’re not going to win a race in the start,” West said, “but you can lose a race.”

New Partners

Matt Mortensen and Jayson Terdiman will make their world cup debut as a team in Igls. They both competed in Sochi, but with different partners. Three-time Olympian Christian Niccum, who raced with Terdiman, has retired, while Preston Griffall, Mortensen’s former partner, is taking a break.

Mortensen and Terdiman kept their same positions on the sled, but had to get accustomed to each other. They won the national title after only 17 rides together.

“There’s still a learning curve because when you put two minds on a sled, you’re trying to act as one person going down the track,” Grimmette said.  “When you’re going down 90 mph, you want to make sure that one person’s not going left and the other’s going right.”

After a small crash in Park City, which caused Mortensen to get seven stitches in his elbow, Terdiman said, “It’s becoming more and more comfortable even by the run.”

No. 2 doubles team Jake Hyrns and Andrew Sherk, who did not make the 2014 Olympic team after a December race-off, started their fall preparation late because Hyrns was returning from basic training as a member of the Army National Guard.

Igls Sets the Tone

It’s fitting that the “fastest sport on ice” begins its world cup season near Innsbruck, Austria, where luge became an Olympic sport in 1964. A total of 134 sleds from 21 nations will compete. Races should be close, since the track is shorter than most on the circuit.

“Igls is a fairly simple track,” West said. “Most everyone can make it down cleanly, so you can see where everyone matches up.”

West and Britcher won a gold medal on the Igls track at the 2012 Youth Olympic Games in the team relay.

Britcher figures that she has had more runs on the Igls track than any other except Lake Placid.

“It’s a second home track for me,” she said, “and I have a level of comfort sliding here so I can focus on smaller things to gain time and boost speed.”

The German quartet of Natalie Geisenberger, Felix Loch and Tobias Wendl/Tobias Arlt currently hold all of the major luge titles: Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games, 2013 World Championships and Viessmann World Cup. They also won gold collectively in luge team relay's Olympic debut. Sochi silver medalist Tatyana Huefner, also of Germany, returns this season, while men’s singles silver medalist Albert Demchenko of Russia and Armin Zoeggeler, the legendary Italian who won the bronze (his sixth Olympic medal in as many Games), have retired.

World Championships Sweepstakes

Grimmette said the Latvia track has been a great venue for U.S. sliders.

“Our team likes going there and likes competing there,” he said. “It’s a fun track.”

He said it is also considered a neutral track since it is outside of Central Europe where the competitive luge nations — Germany, Austria and Italy — have the advantage of practicing on home tracks.

“Whenever we can go outside of Central Europe and compete on a track where everybody has roughly the same amount of runs, it’s a nice comparison, “Grimmette said.

Two lucky fans can witness the U.S. performance for themselves if they win a USA Luge raffle. 

Only 700 chances at $30 a pop will be sold for a package that includes airfare to and from Riga, Latvia,  ground transportation, housing in Sigulda, two meals per day, admission to the track as guests of USA Luge and a USA Luge swag bag.

“We’ve done similar things like this in the past and the winners have always really enjoyed the prize and coming to see an event,” Grimmette said.

New Event

The FIL Sprint World Cup has been added for the 2014-2015 season. Although the new format gives athletes the additional races they desired, only the top 15 in each discipline can take part. In addition, the winner will be decided in just one run. 

Athletes pull from the handles and paddle aggressively down a 100-meter “approach” zone to the start line, where the clock begins (further down the course than normal). 

The Sprint World Cup will close the race weekend three times: in Igls, Calgary and Altenberg, Germany, on Feb. 21-22.

Related Athletes

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Erin Hamlin

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Mark Grimmette

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Aidan Kelly

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Julia Clukey

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Emily Sweeney

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Summer Britcher

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Chris Mazdzer

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Tucker West

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Matt Mortensen

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Jayson Terdiman