Internet search engines were relatively unknown when Matt Mortensen first learned about luge. Growing up in Long Island, New York, he had to dig through an encyclopedia when he was 11 to find out about the sport.
“I didn’t know what it was, so I had to look it up in an old encyclopedia book,” said Mortensen, now 32. “I definitely wanted to try it because it looked fast and fun.”
That interest led to a tryout, which led to a berth on the national team, and culminated with two trips to the Olympic Winter Games. And now, more than 20 years after that fateful flip through the encyclopedia, Mortensen has retired from the sport as one of the most accomplished doubles sliders in the nation’s history. His resume includes two Olympic Winter Games, a world championship silver medal, 12 world cup medals and the highest world cup season finish by a U.S. doubles team in 14 years.
It was the right time for him, he said, and he feels good about where he’s leaving the sport in this country.
“I think USA Luge is in an outstanding position for its future,” Mortensen said. “They have a lot of young kids who are super-talented. They have the best coaches and the newest technology, and they have great sponsors helping us. I think they’re in a really solid position.”
Over his two decades in the sport, Mortensen has seen just about every level.
He made the junior national team by age 13, which meant traveling the world to compete. He began doubles at 16. Over the years he slid with Garon Thorne, then Preston Griffall for six years, and finally with Jayson Terdiman his final four seasons.
Since 2010, Mortensen has also represented the country as part of the Army’s World Class Athlete Program.
That decision came after Mortensen and Griffall narrowly missed the final spot on the 2010 U.S. Olympic Team for Vancouver.
“I was 24 by that point and needed a long-term plan or I would be in trouble,” he said.
So he joined the New York National Guard, while continuing training for luge through the WCAP. Under that arrangement, he and Griffall attacked the next four-year cycle and reached the Olympic Winter Games Sochi 2014, where they finished 14th.
Meanwhile, Griffall was planning to retire, and Terdiman was in the same situation. So about a month before Sochi, they signed a letter of intent to pair up after Sochi. That allowed them to start bonding as teammates while at those 2014 Games, where they watched Olympic ice hockey games and other events together.
Then came the real work on the track back in Lake Placid, New York, and they proved to be a strong pairing there, too. In fact, they meshed so well that they didn’t hit any walls on any of their first 19 runs as a duo.
“That’s pretty remarkable because it usually takes time with someone before you work so smoothly together,” Terdiman said.
The partners became so proficient that they slid their way to three national championships in the last four years. The crescendo was the 2016-17 season, when Terdiman and Mortensen were among the top in the world on a consistent basis. At the second world cup stop that season they won silver in Lake Placid – the first doubles medal by a U.S. team in six years. They finished third in the world cup standings (the best season finish by an American doubles team in 14 years) after finishing seventh and fifth their first two seasons together, and they also won a silver medal in the team relay at the world championships.
Matt Mortensen and Jayson Terdiman complete their run in doubles luge at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 on Feb. 14, 2018 in PyeongChang, South Korea.
Mortensen called that season the most memorable, enjoyable and competitive.
“We climbed the world rankings and slid great together,” Mortensen said. “We won a lot that year and got on the medal podium quite a bit.”
After the season, Mortensen completed his college degree from DeVry University with a Bachelor’s degree in business communication.
Then he and Terdiman built on their previous season by qualifying for the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Games, where they finished 10th in doubles and fourth in team relay.
“2018 was a great setup and we had great training,” Mortensen said. “If we all would’ve nailed our run that day, we probably would’ve won silver, bronze at worst. It had been cold in PyeongChang, but that particular day it was 10 degrees warmer, and we probably didn’t make the right adjustments on the new equipment.”
However, the end was clearly nearing. Mortensen competed in PyeongChang with backaches. Having already contemplated his future in the sport, two bulging disks in his back made the decision to retire a little easier.
“I would’ve considered going a couple more years, but the injury was a big reason I got out,” Mortensen said. “I wanted to get into the business world as well. The stars were aligning and telling me something.”
Terdiman said he’d hoped for at least two more seasons with Mortensen as they were chasing the elusive world championships gold medal. He said not having Mortensen around would be very difficult.
“Oh my gosh, yeah. I’m not just losing a partner, he’s my best friend. We trained together every day,” said Terdiman, who appeared to choke up when asked about parting ways with Mortensen. “I know I can always pick up my phone and call Matt. Just not having him around will be difficult.”
However, Terdiman said he’ll be helping his former partner when Mortensen moves to Norwalk, Connecticut, where he bought a condo and will start new career.
It’s those kinds of relationships, he said, that helped drive him in the sport for so long.
“I have to thank my friends and family and everyone who contributed to my success,” he said. “Without a good support system you can’t be the best version of you.”
Scott McDonald is a freelance writer who has 18 years experience in sports reporting. He was named the State Sports Writer of the Year in 2014 by the Texas High School Coaches Association. McDonald is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.