As Team USA lugers attack their training runs for the world championships this weekend in Innsbruck, Austria, all agree: the Igls course doesn’t hold many surprises. Most have trained and competed there since their junior careers.
And with a total of 10 world cup medals won so far this season by six athletes, the U.S. luge team is hoping to have its most successful world championships in eight years. The event is especially key as it would set athletes up for success at next year’s Olympics.
Sochi Olympian Tucker West launched his international career with junior world cup races at Igls, and was a member of the gold-medal relay team at the 2012 Winter Youth Olympic Games held there.
“I’ve had a lot of races at Igls, and I’ve always kind of held Igls near and dear to me,” West said on a media teleconference on Monday.
This year’s event begins with an opening ceremony on Thursday, followed by sprint competition Friday, women’s and doubles on Saturday, and then men’s and team relay on Sunday.
With back-to-back victories at Lake Placid, New York, and Whistler, British Columbia, early this season, the 21-year-old West, who hails from Ridgefield, Connecticut, sits fifth in world cup standings. He’s put himself into the medal conversation at Igls, along with two-time defending Olympic champion Felix Loch of Germany, a five-time world champion, and Russians Semen Pavlichenko and Roman Repilov, who sit atop the world cup standings.
“I’ve had that good progression where you get to work through every inch of the (Igls) track and really just learn all those things you need to know to be your fastest and your best,” West said. “Hopefully, I will be able to find that this coming weekend.”
Two-time Olympian Chris Mazdzer, 27, has experience at Igls stretching back more than a decade. He told reporters a fast start would be imperative to a podium finish.
“Is this my favorite track in Europe? No, but that doesn’t mean I don’t know this track inside and out, every little part of it,” Mazdzer, whose best result this season is a fourth place in Lake Placid, said. “It just helps me with my confidence, knowing I’ve taken probably a couple of hundred runs here, if not a thousand runs. I’m definitely well prepared going into it and ready to have fun on Saturday.”
Mazdzer just missed bringing home a world medal last season, placing fourth in both singles and sprint. He has long since come to grips with those near-misses.
“I wouldn’t say anything is in the back of my mind, like I need redemption,” Mazdzer said. “For this year, it’s just kind of building upon, I would say, the last two weeks for me — I’m coming around, sliding better, feeling better with the sled.”
If either West or Mazdzer were to medal, it would mark the country’s first men’s luge medal since Wendel Suckow won gold in 1993.
Erin Hamlin, third in world cup standings, and Emily Sweeney, who sits fourth, also have medal hopes. They will have to contend with Germany’s Natalie Geisenberger, winner of three world cup titles this year.
For Sochi bronze medalist Hamlin, the weekend could be bittersweet: the three-time Olympian announced via Instagram that these would most likely be her last world championships, indicating she plans to retire after the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games.
“Reflecting on my second world championships ever, back in 2007 here in Igls,” Hamlin, 30, posted to followers. “As I gear up for my tenth and most likely last … same track, same ambitions, many different emotions!”
Igls is not Hamlin’s favorite venue; she placed seventh in the world cup here last season. On Monday, she told reporters that because it’s one of the shortest tracks on the circuit, it presents unique challenges for gliders.
“The track is actually very easy, so it’s more about letting go and being as fast as you can,” said Hamlin, who was the 2009 world champion, which was the last year any U.S. lugers medaled at worlds. “I definitely had a lot of success here in the past. … I might not have been on the podium the last few years, but I know I can be fast, so there is always a silver lining. It’s just a matter of putting it together on race day.”
German sleds have won all nine world cup doubles races this season, with Toni Eggert and Sascha Benecken claiming seven gold medals, and Olympic champions Tobias Wendl and Tobias Arlt the other two. In their third year together, Team USA’s Matt Mortensen and Jayson Terdiman sit third in the standings, with silver and bronze medals to their credit.
“Track conditions at Igls are really nice,” Mortensen said. “We’ve been going fast in training. As the week progresses, I’d like to nail down some consistent lines and rely on what we’ve trained on.”
“We had some great fourth- and fifth-place finishes last year, but we never found the podium,” Terdimen said. “This year we’ve already been on it twice in a doubles race and twice in team relay, which is a big confidence boost for us.”
Following the world championships is a world cup in Oberstdorf, Germany. Then it’s on to the Olympic luge venue in PyeongChang, where the Team USA lugers will spend two weeks training and getting acquainted with the surroundings.
“The (PyeongChang) track looks really good, it’s a very good facility,” Mazdzer, who tested the venue earlier this season, said. “The track exceeds all expectations and it’s ready to go. I’m excited to have all of the other (Team USA) athletes go over there and also test it out.”