It’s a question that U.S. luge athletes have to be tired of hearing. Just what is it going to take for Team USA to finally get that Olympic gold medal?
But if the athletes are tired of hearing of it, the nagging question hasn’t done anything to affect their confidence. When asked, Tucker West didn’t hesitate.
“I think we’re at a gold-medal level right now,” the 2014 Olympian said.
An Olympic sport since 1964, luge is the only sport at the Winter Games in which the U.S. has earned multiple medals without winning a gold medal. Back-to-back silver medals in doubles luge in 1998 and 2002 represent the closest Team USA has come to bringing home gold.
Gold hasn’t been as much of a problem on the world cup circuit, where West, Summer Britcher, Erin Hamlin, Chris Mazdzer and Emily Sweeney all have won races in recent years. Hamlin is also a two-time world champion and three-time Olympian, and her 2014 Olympic bronze medal was the first medal of any color for a U.S. singles luger.
The 10-member 2018 U.S. Olympic Luge Team was solidified on Friday, and every athlete on the team has won at least one world cup medal.
So while this current crop of U.S. luge athletes has shown they can compete on the world stage, the question still remains: How to turn those silvers and bronzes into gold?
West spoke about the technical improvements that USA Luge has made, bringing in sponsors to help improve the sleds with metallurgical research, 3D modeling and more. Two-time Olympian Mazdzer talked about teamwork, and how Team USA was perhaps uniquely positioned to work as a team in an otherwise individual sport.
“What makes USA Luge different than all the other nations is that we have a goal, the goal is to be the best in the world,” Mazdzer said. “Other nations like the Germans, they’re a bunch of individuals who are kind of fighting against themselves, where rather we’re working together. Yeah, Tucker and I are racing together, and we’re great competitors, but we’re going to help each other out to get there.
“Because once it comes race day, it’s like, ‘I’m going to go as fast as I can, you go as fast as you can, and we’ll see what happens.’ But along that way, there’s so much that happens every run. So there’s 20 corners, and we have three coaches, which means there’s 17 corners that are uncoached. And the only way to kind of quickly acclimate and fix your mistakes is to ask others, ‘Hey what are you doing in this corner? What are you doing here?’”
A small example of that collaboration came as the athletes discussed the track they will race at the Olympics in PyeongChang in two months. Both West and Hamlin individually cited curve nine as the one destined to give athletes the most trouble.
Hamlin is confident that with the talent on Team USA, the group’s medal chances are simply a matter of how they execute.
“I do think the U.S. can win gold,” Hamlin said. “In what, I’m not sure, but in something though. I think our team, we’re capable of it in every discipline. It’ll just be a matter of what happens on those two days. I think in the past couple seasons we’ve shown that we do have the capability to be on the podium and to potentially win gold, but we’ll have to just show up when it counts.”
A gold medal would obviously be the greatest achievement in American luge, and could boost the sport to new heights of popularity in a country where the average fan only pays attention every four years. Capitalizing on that would be integral to growing the next generation of lugers and maintaining a standard of excellence.
“When we become better,” Mazdzer said, “that just gets our name out … this is our opportunity to get the word out about who we are, what it means to be a luge athlete, and how much fun we can have.
“Everything helps. If you’re doing better, the sport is growing.”
Most American luge athletes now are discovered through “slider searches” in which athletes and coaches travel to cities around the country and get kids on a wheeled sled. Those who show the most coachability and athletic ability get a shot to go to Lake Placid, New York, home of one of two luge tracks in the U.S.
“It’s a hard sport to grow, absolutely,” Mazdzer said. “I mean how do you get into luge? There’s only a few opportunities that you have. I got lucky, I grew up by Lake Placid, New York.”
Indeed, Hamlin is also a New Yorker who grew up a 2.5-hour drive from Lake Placid and its track. West was lucky enough — “spoiled,” Mazdzer joked — to train literally in his own backyard. West’s father built him a track that spurred his love of the sport.
While not every nascent luge athlete can count on such a gift, more kids are taking an interest in luge, hopefully forming a strong base for the sport.
“We’re seeing more kids becoming interested in our development programs,” Mazdzer said. “We’re seeing more kids coming out to slider searches and wheel clinics, so we’re getting a larger base where over the last five to 10 years we kind of lost that base. But because of recent success and just really being active, we’re seeing our sport growing in the U.S. more so than ever, which is awesome.”
Todd Kortemeier is a sportswriter, editor and children’s book author from Minneapolis. He is a contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.