The U.S. luge team is coming off a record year of 18 world cup medals in 2015-16, and the world is beginning to notice.
“We get a lot of interest and a lot of wandering eyes from the rest of the world,” two-time Olympian Chris Mazdzer said in a teleconference this week from Germany.
The action begins again Saturday for Mazdzer and 13 other American sliders when the world cup season opens in Winterberg, Germany. It’s the same track where Mazdzer emerged with a world cup silver medal last February to finish the season ranked third overall.
This year’s world cup squad features six 2014 Olympians sliding toward the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games and perhaps even more medals this year.
“As a team, we are really strong,” Mazdzer said.
“For me, I just kind of take it season to season,” said 2014 Olympic bronze medalist Erin Hamlin. “I just want to have a solid year this year and kind of be happy where I’m at so I can start strong next year and do the same thing.”
World Cup Squad: Erin Hamlin, Summer Britcher, Emily Sweeney, Raychel Germaine
Olympic Experience: Hamlin, a three-time Olympian, won a bronze medal at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games to become the first American to win an Olympic singles medal in the sport. Britcher, a 2012 Youth Olympian, made her Olympic debut in Sochi and finished 15th.
Outlook: The women’s squad is coming off an impressive 2015-16 world cup season in which Hamlin, Sweeney and Britcher earned the U.S. women their first-ever world cup sweep, which came at the Lake Placid, New York stop in December. Hamlin finished fourth overall and Britcher fifth for the season. Britcher, meanwhile, won three world cup events.
In the season finale at Winterberg, Hamlin missed the podium by just sixth-hundredths of a second. It prevented her from a third-place finish in the world cup standings, which is motivation enough. But when the season opens this weekend in Winterberg, expect Hamlin to keep an eye on the skies.
“The weather,” she said during a teleconference this week. “We always kind of expect to be prepared for anything when we race in Winterberg. A big part of that is we start through a lot of open space. A lot of tracks these days do a really good job keeping it covered and stuff like that. But Winterberg is wide open. There tend to be pretty drastic things in the weather.”
Britcher began the season this year by winning the national championship in October. Sweeney, a gold medalist in the 2013 junior world championships at Utah Olympic Park, won two straight races in the national seeding races.
Both Sweeney and Britcher have been battling injuries, but they are ready to get the season started.
“My shoulder started bothering me just a couple of weeks ago,” Britcher said. “I’m just trying to push through it and give my all this week.”
World Cup Squad: Chris Mazdzer, Tucker West, Taylor Morris, Jonny Gustafson
Olympic Experience: Mazdzer, a two-time Olympian, helped Team USA finish sixth in the team relay at the Sochi Games. There, he placed 13th individually. West, a 2012 Youth Olympian, made his Olympic debut in Sochi, finishing 22nd.
Outlook: Mazdzer is hoping to at least match the career-best season he had in 2015-16, when he finished third in the world cup standings and became just the third U.S. man to finish among the top three in the standings.
West had a strong preseason, winning the men’s national title, and is coming off a season in which he won two world cup medals and finished seventh in the world cup standings.
Morris had top-15 world cup finishes in Lake Placid and Park City, Utah, last season. Gustafson is on the senior world cup team after helping the United States win a silver medal in the team relay at the 2016 junior world championships in Winterberg.
With the mix of veteran and younger sliders moving up in the U.S. program, Mazdzer sees many of last year’s off-the-podium finishes turning into medals in 2016-17.
“We were really close to medaling a lot of times, including world championships, a couple different world cups,” Mazdzer said. “The goal is to take those fourth places and try to climb one or two spots on the ladder.
“I don’t think there are any set numbers or expectations, but I feel that the team overall is stronger this year.”
World Cup Squad: Matt Mortensen and Jayson Terdiman; Jake Hyrns and Anthony Espinoza; Justin Krewson and Andrew Sherk
Olympic Experience: Mortensen and Terdiman made their Olympic debuts in 2014 in Sochi, though with different partners.
Outlook: After finishing fifth in the world cup standings last year, Mortensen and Terdiman have had a strong start to the new season. They won two national seeding races and also the national championship.
Terdiman actually began sliding in luge doubles with Mazdzer when they were juniors, winning silver and bronze medals in the junior world championships. But now Terdiman and Mortensen are beginning their third year together. They finished seventh in the world cup doubles standings two years ago and improved to fifth last year.
Sherk and Krewson are in their second year together, and they finished sixth last year in the Lake Placid world cup. Hyrns and Espinoza won a gold medal in the Lake Placid Nations Cup.
Working together, the U.S. doubles teams are hoping for strong finishes this season.
“We try to share our knowledge,” Mortensen said. “We don’t want to keep things from one another. We want the whole team to do well.”
The United States had some shining moments in the relay competition in 2015-16, which could lead to some powerful finishes this season. The team won a gold medal in the Lake Placid world cup and finished third in the overall world cup relay standings, behind only Germany and Russia.
Mortensen, Terdiman, Mazdzer and Britcher combined for fifth place in the season finale in Winterberg last February.
Paul D. Bowker has been writing about Olympic sports since 1990. He is Olympics editor and Assistant Sports Editor at the Cape Cod Times in Massachusetts. Bowker has written for TeamUSA.org since 2010 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.