LAKE PLACID, N.Y. — Sometimes the sport of luge is about good sliding. Other times, it’s about luck.
USA Luge got a little of both today in the Lake Placid World Cup team relay. Sitting in third place, with one team left to slide, it was not looking good for the Americans. The final team was Germany. And it’s rare that the German lugers do not make the podium.
Then, shockingly, Felix Loch, who has won three Olympic gold medals and 12 world championship titles, slammed into the wall on the track’s tricky chicane section, and his relay teammates could not make up the time. The Germans ended up seventh.
(A luge relay team consists of one woman, one man and a doubles team, sliding consecutively down the track, with each member of the team hitting an overhead paddle at the finish to signal their teammates to start.)
But the Germans’ misfortune was good for the American sliders. The U.S. team of Summer Britcher, Tucker West and Matt Mortensen/Jayson Terdiman held on for a bronze medal in the season’s first world cup team relay in 2:34.815.
Canada won the relay in 2:34.627, just a hair in front of Russia in 2:34.671.
“It’s tough to have the Germans behind you,” said West. “Usually, they’re very solid. They had some mishaps on the track, which was unfortunate but lucky for us.”
Last year, the Americans won their first team relay on the Lake Placid track — and broke the track record. But Britcher, 22, is nursing a strained muscle in her left shoulder, so has had to modify her start, and West missed a paddle stroke on his start and ended with the fourth-fastest time in the race — a tough day for the guy who won a gold medal yesterday.
The relay starts from the lower women’s start, not the men’s. And the women’s start has a steeper pitch. West practiced all week from the men’s start and simply missed a paddle stroke as the track dipped steeply away from him at the relay start.
“You really lose all the speed from your start, which is tough to come back from,” he explained. “I know I lost time in the run, but I’m glad I have a team to support me.”
After West slid, Mortensen and Terdiman had one of their best runs of the weekend. But it was not enough to pull the team into the lead. Still, the Americans were happy to remain in medal contention.
“I’ll take any flavor medal any day of the week,” said Terdiman, who won his first world cup doubles medal with Mortensen on Saturday. “Even though it wasn’t gold, it’s still a medal, and it’s helping with the medal count for Team USA. So we’re very happy for that.”
For Britcher, the relay bronze medal was consolation for a tough women’s race earlier in the day. She was in podium contention after her first run, sitting 0.011 seconds ahead of teammate Erin Hamlin, the 30-year-old Olympic bronze medalist, who was in third.
They were hoping to recreate their podium sweep from last year. But it was going to be tough with Britcher’s shoulder. Emily Sweeney, who finished second last year, is also injured. She fell last spring and injured her right wrist. The pain continued through the summer, and she finally had surgery on Aug. 29, 2016.
But if Britcher and Hamlin could hold their spots, they would continue USA Luge’s medal-winning weekend.
In the second run, mistakes caught up with them. Britcher ended up fourth, in 1:28.758, and Hamlin — who made uncharacteristic mistakes on her home track — fell from third to seventh (1:28.944).
Hamlin felt off in training all week and was never able to find her zone. In her first run, she skidded from Curve 12 into 13 — a tough section of the Lake Placid track known as the labyrinth.
“For those rally fans, I pretty much drifted into the curve, which is a ton of time,” explained Hamlin. “Second run, I hit [the wall] before Curve 11, which I haven’t done in a long time. That one caught me by surprise.”
After her second run, Britcher was unsure what she had done that dropped her from the medals. Despite her shoulder, she had the sixth and seventh fastest starts. But she could not make up time down the track like she usually does.
“I had a few minor mistakes in my run, but overall it was a pretty decent run, I actually thought it was a better run than my first run,” said a disappointed Britcher. “Coming up that outrun, I was expecting to see a 1. I was a little shocked when I saw that 3.”
German Tatjana Huefner was the final slider on the track, and she bumped Britcher down to fourth. Huefner has won everything that there is to win in luge (three Olympic medals and four world championship titles), but she has never won on the Lake Placid track.
Huefner finally mastered the riddle of the track and collected her 37th world cup gold medal in a time of 1:28.638. She is now tied for the most ever world cup wins with fellow German Sylke Otto, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, four-time world and world cup champion. Canadians Kimberley McRae and Alex Gough rounded out the podium in second and third, respectively.
Emily Sweeney maintained sixth place on her two runs and was just happy to compete.
For Britcher, it was not the same start to the season that she enjoyed last year. The bronze medal that she won in the Lake Placid World Cup began a breakout season for the young slider. She won three races last year, tying Huefner for the most world cup wins. And she ended the season ranked fifth overall, one place behind Hamlin.
Britcher shed some tears as she walked up the outrun. But once she gathered herself, she was philosophical about her young career.
“We’re trying to be perfect here on the track so it’s just little things,” she said. “It takes time to build that experience.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered four Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.