LAKE PLACID, N.Y. — It was a day of redemption in Lake Placid. After a frustrating pre-Olympic season, seven USA Luge sliders showed what they had, officially qualifying for the 2018 U.S. Olympic Team on Friday.
For starters, Tucker West finished third in the Lake Placid FIL Luge World Cup — his first podium result this season. It helped him put behind an erratic season, where his best result had been 10th.
West, 22, won the first run, briefly breaking his track record, then held on for third place in his second run, clocking 1:42.132. In world cup racing, West has never finished off the podium in Lake Placid, his home track.
Russians Roman Repilov and Semen Pavlichenko finished 1-2, in 1:41.874 and 1:41.938, respectively. On his second run, Repilov lowered West’s track record by another 0.029 seconds.
With the podium finish, West met the A-tier standard for the second time this season and knew his Olympic spot was safe. As an 18-year-old in Sochi, he was the youngest men’s singles slider, and he finished 22nd.
“It’s a huge weight off of our shoulders,” said West. “These were normal world cup races these last five races, but having that extra stress of trying to qualify for an Olympic team, after you put so much work into it for four years, it’s definitely a burden.”
It was also a good day for Taylor Morris. The 26-year-old finished fifth and will make his Olympic debut in PyeongChang. It was his best finish ever in a world cup race and made up for 2014, when he missed a qualifying standard for the Olympic team by four thousandths of a second.
“It hasn’t sunk in,” said Morris, close to tears and looking for his wife in the stands. “It’s a long time coming.”
From Salt Lake City, Morris was initially inspired to try luge after watching the sport at the Olympic Winter Games Salt Lake City 2002.
“It lit a fire in a lot of young kids’ hearts, and I was one of them,” said Morris. “Words can’t describe what it feels like to be here 16 years later and finally succeed in what I’ve been dreaming of.”
He raced as a junior through 2011, then won a silver medal at the 2013 under-23 world championships. His best world cup result to date had been eighth in a one-run sprint race last season.
Coming to Lake Placid, Morris had yet to meet USA Luge’s Olympic qualification criteria and was in a race-off with his roommate Jonny Gustafson and John Fennell. But Fennell broke a kufen on his sled (it holds the runner or steel onto the sled) in the Nations Cup qualifier Thursday night and did not move on to world cup racing. And Gustafson finished 22nd today.
Motivating Morris was his very narrow miss four years ago. Missing the 2014 Olympic Games was heart-crushing, he said, and he returned to sliding stronger mentally and physically. He came to Lake Placid knowing losing was not an option.
“I had to take it as losing is the worst thing that could possibly happen, and I won’t go away without a win,” he said. “This was a big win in my book.”
With an eighth-place finish in Lake Placid, Chris Mazdzer, 29, was relieved to make his third Olympic team (he finished 13th in both 2010 and 2014). But it wasn’t easy. His best result so far this season had been 14th — a far cry from two years ago, when he won five world cup medals, including two golds, and finished third overall.
“I’m actually really happy with the way I performed,” said Mazdzer. “I just would have liked a better result. But that’s been my struggle the last year. It’s really tough being off the podium when you know you competed the same exact way two years ago, and you were finding your way to the top. It really does kill me on the inside knowing how much I put into this. It’s tough.”
Part of the American lugers’ struggles this season relate to limited training during the fall. Warm temperatures in Lake Placid in September and October kept the sliders off the ice, giving them less time to test sled set-ups. They will train in Lake Placid through the holidays and try to make up for those lost training runs.
“Eyes are definitely on PyeongChang now,” said West, who looked visibly relieved and joked, “Do my shoulders look lighter? They feel lighter.”
West was also inspired to try luge after the 2002 Olympics. He was 6 years old at the time, and his dad, Brett West, built a backyard luge behind their home in Ridgefield, Connecticut. It resembles a 19th century gold-mining sluice and still stands.
After the 2014 Games, where West was an underdog, he slid fast to the top of world cup results. On the track to PyeongChang, West felt the pressure of expectations this time. With Olympic qualification over, he hopes that he and the team can return to consist podium finishes again.
“We’ve lost a lot of the battles in these past few races, but the war’s not over,” he said, “and we’re excited to move forward.”
USA Luge has never won an Olympic medal in men’s singles. West, Mazdzer and Morris hope to change that in PyeongChang.
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In the doubles race at Lake Placid, Matt Mortensen and Jayson Terdiman also met the A-tier Olympic qualification standard for the second time this season, taking fifth. They have officially qualified for their first Olympic team together (both competed at the 2014 Games but with different partners).
Justin Krewson, 21, and Andrew Sherk, 25, finished sixth in the doubles race — tying their best world cup result ever as a team — and will be nominated to their first Olympic team.
“It’s been such a stressful first half,” said Sherk. “To know that we’re finally going to be able to make it to the Games and compete, it’s amazing.”
Reigning world champions Toni Eggert and Sascha Benecken — dubbed “Eggs Benedict” — from Germany won their fifth race of the season, with Peter Penz/Georg Fischler from Austria in second and Tristan Walker/Justin Snith from Canada in third.
Mortensen, 32, and Terdiman, 28, were sitting in second place after the first run — their best placing so far this season, and they briefly broke the track record, until “Eggs Benedict” broke it again. Last year, Mortensen and Terdiman won three medals in world cup racing, including a silver at Lake Placid, and they finished the season ranked third overall. It was the best ranking for a U.S. doubles team in 14 years.
But it was not meant to be this year. Snow slid off the roof of the finish platform and buried the pair as they walked off the track after their first run. It was symbolic of what could come in their second run, when they dumped speed skidding through the tricky chicane on the Lake Placid track. They crossed the finish line in fifth.
But their record-setting first run, plus an unofficial record-breaker in training yesterday, bodes well for the duo.
“Two PRs in two days, we’re sliding fast,” said Terdiman. “We just have to do two [fast runs] in a row.”
Krewson and Sherk were in a nail-biter race-off for the second Olympic doubles spot with teammates Jake Hyrns and Anthony Espinoza. The two teams have gone back-and-forth in results all season. Hyrns/Espinoza led first run in Lake Placid. Then Krewson and Sherk laid down the fourth-fastest second run and beat their teammates by 0.62 seconds.
“We’re such good friends, they work just as hard as we do,” said Krewson shortly after hugging Hyrns and Espinoza. “It’s just sad that we all can’t go as a team.”
Asked what he thought of his teammates’ performances today, West spoke about redemption.
“One of the most impressive things in this sport is putting behind your bad races, your defeats, and coming back,” he said. “Justin impressed the hell out of me today. That was the bases are loaded, the ninth inning of the World Series kind of pressure, and he performed all the way through.
“Taylor by four-thousandths, that has to be crushing. He came back, worked harder than I’ve ever seen him work before. Team USA is working hard, and I’m excited to see what we can do moving forward.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered four Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.