Chris Mazdzer poses during the medal ceremony at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 on Feb. 12, 2018 in PyeongChang, South Korea.
LAKE PLACID, N.Y. — Two weeks before the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, Chris Mazdzer thought he should just go home. His chances of winning an Olympic medal were going downhill faster than his luge sled.
It was his 20th season sliding, and Mazdzer was frustrated. Why had he been third overall on the FIL World Cup two seasons prior, but now — using a sled made of the same materials as the rest of the field — the best he could do leading into the Games was eighth?
Then he saw it. In a photo, he noticed that his feet were closer together on the sled than some of his competitors. It’s the kind of thing only a trained eye can detect.
Mazdzer made the adjustments to his sled, including “shaving back” his shoulders. In the final world cup before the PyeongChang Games, he finished sixth, only a few hundredths of a second off the podium.
“It wasn’t materials, it wasn’t how I was sliding, it wasn’t the start, it was just the position on the sled,” he said during a sunny fall day of training at the Lake Placid track. “That’s what I was chasing for two years. I was so upset but so relieved.”
Mazdzer went on to win an Olympic silver medal in Korea. He is the first U.S. man ever to win an Olympic medal in singles luge.
Since that night in PyeongChang, much has changed for Mazdzer, who’s now 30. But much has stayed the same.
“Struggling for two years before the Olympics was the best thing that could have possibly happened for me because I really had to be completely comfortable with who I was,” he said.
The silver medal has not changed him. But it has changed what he can do.
Mazdzer is an athlete mentor for Classroom Champions, a non-profit organization that connects under-served youth with world-class athletes who help them excel in school. While appearing on several TV talk shows during his post-Olympic media tour, he decided to use his platform to raise money for the organization.
“I just basically put out a challenge to people,” he said.
On the TV shows, he announced, “I donated $5,000. Match that.”
His effort raised $50,000 for Classroom Champions, with TV host Megyn Kelly ponying up an exact $5,000 to match Mazdzer’s gift.
The post-Olympic media tours have wound down. But Mazdzer is still traveling around the world motivating others. In the past several months, he has been invited to speak in corporate settings, at conferences, and to educational institutions.
What does he talk about?
For starters, he talks about luge — because many people still don’t know what the sport entails. He then talks about why he became a luger (“because the line was shorter,” he jokes). The gist of his talks tend to focus on motivation and support.
“It’s emotional support that really helped me pull through,” he said, “and [I talk about] how you can provide that to others.”
"Dancing With The Stars”
Two days after Mazdzer stood on the Olympic podium, his cell phone rang.
“I don’t know why, but I decided to answer it,” he said.
A producer from the TV show “Dancing with The Stars” had found his number (on Instagram) and asked if he would like to be on the show.
“I said yes right there,” said Mazdzer, who had no dancing experience.
(Then the producer suggested the luger remove his phone number from the Internet. “No one had ever called me!” joked Mazdzer.)
In May, Mazdzer flew to Los Angeles and spent three of the show’s four-week run working with professional dancer Witney Carson, turning a luger’s instincts into a dancer’s.
“The first show, I was so nervous, way more nervous than at the Olympics for sure,” he admitted.
He and Carson were voted out in semifinals.
“I wasn’t terrible!” Mazdzer said. “I went out in the same round as Mirai [Nagasu, two-time Olympic figure skater]. So I’m like, okay, one of the best women’s figure skaters currently, and I went out in the same round as her. I did all right. I can live with that.”
After DWTS wrapped, Mazdzer returned to training. This year, he is upping his program to include doubles luge. He is partnering with two-time Olympian Jayson Terdiman, whose former partner Matt Mortensen retired after the PyeongChang Games.
Going Four More Years
Going into the 2018 PyeongChang Games, Mazdzer wanted to compete for another four years and slide in the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022. But his finances were looking grim. With no world cup or world championship podium finishes in the previous two seasons, the luger was going to be on his own financially, with none of the funding that comes from top performances.
Then Mazdzer slid to Olympic silver and extended his career.
“I wanted to go four more years,” he said. “Now I have the means to go four more years.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered five Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.