With the FIL Luge World Cup season less than halfway over, USA Luge is on track to make this season its most successful ever. In four of nine world cups to date, U.S. lugers have won nine medals in four different events, including two golds.
As 19-year-old Tucker West said on a conference call before the holidays, success snowballs.
With five world cups left this winter, the team has a good chance of surpassing the previous high water mark of 11 world cup medals (in 2005-06).
The team’s medal run began a month ago in Lake Placid, New York, when Erin Hamlin won a silver medal, and West — out of nowhere — won his first world cup race.
“To be honest, I thought a snowflake had tripped the timer when I came down (the Lake Placid track) for my first run,” West said. “It was a pleasant surprise to see I could back it up with a second run.”
Another pleasant surprise happened in early January, when the U.S. team hit German turf. Previously, the U.S. team’s world cup medals mostly came on North American tracks, where the dominant Germans have less experience.
But on the tricky Koenigssee track in Bavaria, Chris Mazdzer, 26, won his first medal outside North America (a bronze in men’s singles). Emily Sweeney, 21, finished a best-ever fourth, and then Sweeney, Mazdzer and the new doubles team of Matt Mortensen and Jayson Terdiman teamed for a silver in the relay.
The U.S. is now ranked second in the team relay standings behind Germany. Mazdzer is ranked third overall, Hamlin fifth, and Sweeney and Mortensen/Terdiman both seventh in their respective events.
From where does this momentum spring?
It’s easy to point to Erin Hamlin’s Olympic bronze medal in Sochi, Russia, last winter. It was the first singles Olympic medal for USA Luge. After taking a break this summer, Hamlin, 28, came into this season relaxed and refreshed. Her silver medal at the Lake Placid World Cup was her best-ever world cup finish in singles. She scored another silver a week later in Calgary in the new sprint race that debuted this season.
“Going into Sochi, I had the mindset of just enjoying it,” said Hamlin. “It worked out really well. So I carried it over to this season.”
Sweeney also changed her summer training plans, staying home in Suffield, Connecticut, for the first time since she was 13 and working out with a trainer who is a former gymnast. Rather than traditional weightlifting, Sweeney worked on functional strength and now feels stronger and more balanced.
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Another reason behind the U.S. team’s medal haul is that there are now more opportunities to win medals. Three of the team’s medals have come in the new sprint race, which debuted this season after sliders requested more races in the world cup schedule. The one-run race (in each discipline) is being held at three world cups this season and is the final race of those events.
In the sprint, timing starts 100-150 meters down the track (a flying start) and ends at the regular finish. The sprint is only open to the top 15 finishers of the previous day’s world cup races, and world cup points are awarded.
Sprints were held at the Igls World Cup in late November and in Calgary in mid-December. Neither Mazdzer nor West qualified for the Igls sprint (they were not ranked in the top 15) but then took gold and silver at Calgary, a track they know well. The final sprint of the season is scheduled for late February at the track in Altenberg, Germany.
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Also working in the U.S. team’s favor this season is renewed attention to sled research and design.
A luge (French for sled) has four parts: the pod (on which the athlete lies), the kufens (German word for runner), the bridge (which connects the pod to the kufens), and the steels, which attach to the kufens and are the part that slides on the ice.
“Over the past few years, and especially the past 10 months and this summer, we’ve been doing a lot of work trying to improve these parts and how they interact with one another,” said Mark Grimmette, USA Luge’s director of sports programs and a two-time Olympic medalist in doubles luge.
This work is far more than just tinkering with the sleds. The engineering involved makes USA Luge sound like a NASA contractor.
The federation has teamed with over 20 companies to engineer better sleds. For example, Norton, a brand of Saint-Gobain Abrasives that has partnered with USA Luge for more than 30 years, has a research and development center in Northboro, Massachusetts, that developed a recipe for high-performance steels. This new recipe, a concoction of iron and other metals, along with proprietary coatings, has helped reduce the steels’ coefficient of friction on ice.
Other partners, such as Dow Chemical and Scaled Composites, are helping USA Luge improve sled aerodynamics (one program is called CFD — computational fluid dynamics).
Even obscure equipment is not overlooked. Vulcan GMS is helping USA Luge build tools to more accurately measure sled dimensions.
“We’re definitely getting good equipment, stuff that’s been tested in wind tunnels and done on computers,” said Mazdzer. “We aren’t just making it by hand anymore.”
The parts are now mass produced, added Mazdzer, which means everyone on the team can have them, not just the top sliders.
In mid-December, Mazdzer and West — both 6-foot-1 — discovered a sled setup that works for both sliders. Now, in addition to coaches’ input, they give each other feedback about tricky sections on each track.
“In the past, people were riding different setups, different equipment, so even though they would tell you what they were doing, it wasn’t necessarily what you needed to be doing,” Mazdzer said. “Having someone that’s basically the same exact style as I am has really helped me, and I hope him as well.”
Since the Lake Placid World Cup, Mazdzer and West have both finished in the top 10, with one of them winning at least one medal in each of the past three world cups.
But improved equipment is not an instant panacea. Each track throughout the world is different, and the U.S. still lags in gathering data from all these tracks with the new equipment. In the future, this data will help coaches and athletes know what setups and equipment slides fastest on each track. Other countries’ teams, said Hamlin, have 20-plus years’ worth of data to rely on.
“Reinstating technical programs in the last couple of years has been a really good scratch of the surface,” Hamlin added. “I still think we have a long way to go. I wouldn’t say we’re going to be on even ground any time soon.”
“The equipment will only get you halfway there,” added Mazdzer. “Then it’s all about how you tune and set it up. We don’t have a lot of information on what exactly works. From time to time, you stumble upon something that works. What we stumbled upon has been working at least for me and Tucker.”
But the sliders acknowledged that the equipment is coming along, and USA Luge is sliding in the right direction.
“Sled technology has taken us into a new age,” said West. “No longer are the days when you hope you can make a clean run and qualify for a world cup. Now we can hope for a clean run and maybe get top five.”
“A lot of things have come together (this season),” summed up Grimmette. “Taking a look at the sled takes all the attention. But we also have a great coaching staff traveling with the team now. The athletes came off the Olympics and are very motivated, and they trained well during the summer. It’s a combination of all those things that has made our team as competitive as they are this year.”
This weekend, the team will compete in the season’s fifth world cup at Oberhof, Germany, except for West, who is competing at the 30th FIL Junior World Championships in Lillehammer, Norway.
“Everyone’s riding high on our medal count,” said Sweeney. “As our sled technology develops, it trickles through the team. As it’s happening, you’re seeing the depth of our team. That has really amped some people up.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered three Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.