Chris Mazdzer celebrates winning the silver medal in men's singles luge at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 on Feb. 11, 2018 in PyeongChang, South Korea.
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea -- Chris Mazdzer entered the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 with no expectations, no pressure and no eyes on him. And he will leave it with a permanent spot in the history books.
The 29-year-old luger won the silver medal Sunday night at Alpensia Sliding Centre, becoming the first American – and first non-European – to win an Olympic medal in men’s singles, in a sport that’s been on the Olympic program since 1964. He also set a track record in the process.
Until now, the fourth-place finishes by Adam Heidt and Tony Benshoof in 2002 and 2006, respectively, were Team USA’s highest finishes in the event.
“I’m amped, I’m wired. This is amazing,” Mazdzer said minutes after the race ended. “I don’t have words yet. It hasn’t sunk in.”
It was a night full of surprises as first-time Olympian David Gleirscher of Austria, who barely made his country’s Olympic team and has never been on a world cup podium, won gold. Germany’s Johannes Ludwig took bronze. His teammate, two-time defending Olympic champion Felix Loch was in the lead through the fourth heat but made a mistake and ended up fifth.
Mazdzer’s historic performance this weekend continues a hot streak of history-making Olympic medals for USA Luge. Until 2014, the country had earned four Olympic luge medals and they all came in doubles (two in 1998, two in 2002). Then Erin Hamlin won bronze in Sochi for the nation’s first singles medal and first by a woman. Now Mazdzer has continued that momentum with his silver medal in PyeongChang.
“It’s so hard to realize what just happened, but I think this gives luge in the United States a huge boost,” he said. “Last Olympics we had our first female medal, now I guess I am our first male medalist. We have a strong team coming up, so it’s incredible. I see some good things in the future for USA Luge.”
While Mazdzer is new to the Olympic podium, he is no stranger to international success.
The three-time Olympian has 10 individual world cup medals to his name, with half of those coming in the 2015-16 season when he was on the podium five times in nine races, which included two wins. He finished that world cup campaign ranked third in the world, which is tied for the highest world cup standing for any American.
Mazdzer has struggled to find that speed in recent years, though, failing to medal at all the past two world cup seasons. After finishing the 2017-18 world cup season ranked 18th and placing 12th at last season’s Olympic test event on the PyeongChang track, Mazdzer entered the Games far from a medal favorite. He also was 13th at both his previous Olympic appearances.
But he pulled out the performance of his life when it mattered most.
“I’ve always been confident with my sliding, it’s just that the results haven’t been there,” Mazdzer explained. “I’ve had really good starts. It just took the conditions to be right, and these conditions are so cold. It really played into my comfort zone.”
The Saranac Lake, New York, native who grew up racing on the Lake Placid track – also known for being one of the coldest – was fifth after the first of four runs on Saturday and knew he was in the running for the podium. Then he had a game-changing run and posted the second-fastest time of heat two, sliding into fourth place and a mere 0.001 seconds from the podium.
When competition resumed Sunday night, Mazdzer set a track record with his third-run time of 47.534 seconds to vault himself into second.
“Coming in, the ice temperature dropping, it’s getting colder, I knew that I had it,” he said. “It was this weird thing – I was really at peace with myself. I looked at the ice and I was excited, not nervous at all, and I think that really helped me have that great third run. That fourth run, I didn’t take it off of eight as much as I needed to, but I was able to barely fix it.”
His track record was beat in the final run by Italy’s Dominik Fischnaller, who finished fourth, but Mazdzer was able to maintain second place after Loch’s uncharacteristic mistake dropped him to fifth.
Mazdzer will also compete in the team relay with a to-be-determined U.S. woman and doubles team on Feb. 15. The reigning world silver medalists in the event, they will hope to round out Team USA’s Olympic medal collection with at least one in every luge event.