LAKE PLACID, N.Y. — Tucker West likes the Lake Placid luge track.
The 21-year-old slider won the FIL World Cup here two years ago — the youngest American ever to win a world cup medal in singles luge. Then West finished second last year. He also owns the track record — a blistering 51.002 seconds.
At the 2016 Lake Placid World Cup, West won again. Leading after the first run, the American barely held off Russian Semen Pavlichenko and won his second-ever world cup gold medal, with a winning time of 1:43.088. Pavlichenko came in second, just six-thousandths behind in 1:43.094, and Austria’s Wolfgang Kindl, who won the junior world title on the Lake Placid track in 2008, had the fastest second run and moved into third with a time of 1:43.182.
“This is home track, so I’m always coming in with a little bit more confidence than any other track,” West said. “I was a little nervous coming into the race, it’s always nerve-racking to race in front of your friends and family. But I’m glad I was able to perform. I couldn't ask for anything more.”
The West family arrived in Lake Placid in a big black van, which his dad decorated with a Team Tucker banner. And they chanted U-S-A as West sat in the start second run.
But then they held their breath. With only an eight-thousandths of a second lead over Pavlichenko after the first run, West had no room for mistakes.
And then he made one.
He went high on the first curve coming out of the start. From there to the finish, the clock flashed green, to show he was in the lead, then red when he gave up the lead, then back to green. At the final interval, the clock was in the red. But when he flew across the line, West had regained the lead by 0.006.
“That was great racing,” said West, still wide-eyed. “I wish I could have pulled ahead a little bit more. But hey, a win’s a win.”
Teammate Chris Mazdzer also had a nail-biter of a second run. In third after the first run, he fell to fourth after making a similar mistake in Curve 1.
“Fourth place is great, but it’s disappointing when you’re at your home track, and you’re off the medal stand by three hundredths of a second,” Mazdzer said.
Although shy of a medal, Mazdzer’s race again showed the depth of the U.S. luge program, which started the day with a silver medal in doubles. This is the third year in a row that USA Luge has had two men finish in the top four on the Lake Placid track. Last year, Mazdzer, 28, won for the first time on his home track, with West in second. Mazdzer won four more world cup medals last season and finished ranked third overall.
But the day belonged to West, who found redemption after being disqualified from the Winterberg World Cup last week in Germany. After his first run, he was overweight by half a gram. According to FIL rules, if a sled is over the 23-kilogram mark, then a slider has to take weight out of his additional clothing, explained West. But West did not anticipate that his race clothing put him over the limit, so did not reduce weight accordingly.
The DQ hit especially hard because: 1) It kept him from qualifying for the world cup sprint the following day, and 2) West usually does well on the Winterberg track.
In second place before the DQ, West might have had enough points to take over the world cup lead in Lake Placid. Instead, he went from “zero to 100,” he told FIL, referring to the 100 points that he earned for the world cup win.
Known for the backyard luge track that his dad built behind their home in Ridgefield, Connecticut, after the 2002 Olympic Games — when Tucker was 6 years old — West made a name for himself on the luge scene two years ago when he shattered the Lake Placid course record. The record was 51.939 seconds, set by the legendary German slider Felix Loch at the 2009 world championships. West dropped the record by almost one second, a huge margin in a sport that’s timed to the thousandth of a second.
The West’s backyard luge track still stands — a 485-foot-long wooden slide that resembles a 19th century gold-mining sluice. It’s where USA Luge’s marketing director Gordy Sheer, the 1998 Olympic silver medalist in doubles, first discovered West.
“He had a great race today and held it together under immense pressure and executed,” said Sheer. “He’s maturing as an athlete. I’m excited that he was able to do it at home in front of his family and in front of a lot of our sponsors.”
West won two medals on the world cup circuit last year and finished seventh overall — one of the youngest sliders in the top 10. He also won a gold medal at the 2016 FIL U23 World Championships.
“He’s so young, too,” added Sheer. “He’s got a long career in front of him if he wants it.”
“The speed is there,” said West, who hugged his family after his win. “So hopefully we can continue this through the next world cups and even into world championships.”
Racing continues Sunday with women’s luge in the morning and the team relay in the afternoon. West and the doubles team of Matt Mortensen/Jayson Terdiman will compete for Team USA, along with whichever woman — Erin Hamlin, Emily Sweeney, or Summer Britcher — has the fastest run in morning.
Last year, the U.S. won the relay in Lake Placid and finished the season ranked third overall.
“Hopefully,” West concluded, “we can one-up our record-breaking season from last year.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered four Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.