For the past 17 years, Germany has had a lock on the women’s FIL Luge World Cup overall title. In fact, since 1999, German sliders have occupied the top three spots in the overall competition, with only two exceptions.
Not so this winter. At least not so far.
Over halfway through the 2015-16 season, Team USA’s Summer Britcher holds the overall world cup lead, 34 points ahead of Germany’s Natalie Geisenberger, the defending champion for the past three seasons and reigning Olympic champion.
|Summer Britcher celebrates during women's luge at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games at Sliding Center Sanki on Feb. 11, 2014 in Rosa Khutor, Russia.|
It’s a surprising spot for 21-year-old Britcher, whose results ranged from fourth to 19th last season.
“Honestly, I think people might have predicted — myself included — this season to be similar to last season, but maybe a little bit better,” Britcher said from Sigulda, Latvia, site of the latest world cup. “They might have predicted a really bad finish, then maybe a podium, and then I might do really poorly again. I went back and forth last year, and I had no consistency.”
So far this season, she has won three races and finished third in two others.
What has led to Britcher’s sudden dominance and consistency?
A dose of confidence and a lot of teamwork.
But it didn’t start out this way. In pre-season training, Britcher — who finished 15th at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia — was struggling. The problem: she was trying to get used to a different-shaped shell (part of her sled).
“I was sort of in a really negative mood for the first couple weeks of the season because I felt really stressed out,” she admitted.
Then at the first world cup in Igls, Austria, in late November, she finished fifth.
But the real turning point happened a week later when the world cup came to her home track in Lake Placid, New York. The U.S. women swept the podium for the first time, with Britcher finishing third. It was her first world cup podium.
“It took a huge weight off of my shoulders to get that first podium, to get that incredibly elusive podium,” she said, still sounding relieved.
With one of her goals met and the pressure removed, she relaxed and calmly headed to the next two world cups in Park City, Utah, then Calgary Alberta. She wrapped up the first half of the world cup tour with three wins and two third-place finishes.
A positive team dynamic is also helping Britcher — and the entire U.S. squad. Throughout the season, the American sliders have described their team as a family.
“We interact with all the international teams on a daily basis, and I really do believe that the U.S. team has the most family-oriented background,” said doubles slider Jayson Terdiman earlier this season. “We grew up together in the same building in the training center in Lake Placid, working out together, sliding together, traveling together. It’s truly like brothers and sisters.”
Britcher even joked that she missed her luge family over the holidays.
“Oddly enough, you’d think I’d be sick of these people after spending so much time with them, but I actually missed them when I was home for Christmas,” she said.
As a family, they help each other out. Whereas the German women lock up their sleds to hide them from their teammates, said Britcher, the Americans talk to each other about the right line on a track or how to take a curve.
Britcher has particularly benefited from three-time Olympian Erin Hamlin’s experience and advice.
“I am very grateful that we’re not rivals because I would kind of be lost,” Britcher said of the 2014 Sochi bronze medalist. “If I did not have the ability to go to her (and say), ‘Hey, how are you steering this curve, what are you doing here, what should I do about this?’, I would be having a lot more trouble.”
For Hamlin’s part, she likes watching Britcher grow as an athlete.
“The other day, we were in the start house, and Summer made a joke about doing well or being good,” said Hamlin. “We looked at her and said you can’t make those jokes anymore because you are first in the world. It was really funny to see that realization hit her.”
Britcher’s season hit a bump at the Sigulda World Cup last weekend. After straining her neck in training, she finished 11th. One of her goals for the season was to finish top-10 in every race, so she was upset.
But she retained the overall world cup lead.
With five world cup races left — four on German tracks — Britcher will face a stiff challenge in maintaining the overall lead. But she has a good perspective.
“I’m still pretty young, and the main thing is to be consistent from week to week on every track,” she said. “I will stick with my goal of (finishing) top-10s this season.”
Although she would like to win a medal at the world championships in Koenigssee, Germany, at the end of January, her main goal is to finish better than last year. In 2015, she was ninth at worlds.
She would also like to win the U23 world title — a race within a race at world championships. Last year, she earned the U23 silver medal.
And she will continue to enjoy the camaraderie of her USA Luge “family.”
“There’s not really a secret as far as how we’re sliding or how you’re steering,” she said. “We all support each other. That is giving us an edge because it’s a healthy environment.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered three Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.