Chris Mazdzer knew something was terribly wrong as soon as he started his second training run for the 2019 FIL World Championships in Winterberg, Germany.
“I felt something slip in my neck, and it’s caused me severe pain,” said the Olympic silver medalist in men’s singles luge.
That was Jan. 15. For the next week sliding was out and sleeping was painful. If Mazdzer slept wrong, his neck hurt even more.
But he stayed upbeat. “I’ve just been watching my teammates crush it going down the track,” Mazdzer said.
He was finally able to see a German doctor Tuesday and get an MRI. Mazdzer was cleared to jump back on the sled with teammate Jayson Terdiman for two doubles training runs Wednesday, which were good enough to qualify for this weekend’s competition.
After arriving in Winterberg with the most ambitious schedule of any Team USA athlete – singles, doubles and team relay – Mazdzer is expected to compete only in doubles and the team relay. He and Terdiman were Team USA’s only doubles sled on the world cup circuit this season.
They missed 20 training runs and will have only three before competition begins Friday, but Mazdzer said on Instagram, “the odds are against me… but for some reason I thrive under these circumstances.” He concluded with the hashtags #nevergiveuphope and #takecareofyourself.
Erin Hamlin, the 2014 Olympic women’s bronze medalist who is a Team USA assistant coach for this event, said of Mazdzer, “Thankfully he’s got a lot of experience, so him having to jump on a sled at the last minute isn’t as stressful of a situation as maybe the other athletes who don’t have as many runs here.”
Mark Grimmette, five-time Olympian and director of sports programs for USA Luge told TeamUSA.org that while it’s disappointing for Mazdzer and the team that he won’t do his whole schedule, “Chris is making the decisions that he needs to make in order to compete for Team USA. We’re supporting him as much as we can.”
Of Mazdzer’s choice to forego singles and concentrate on doubles and the team relay – in which Team USA took silver at the 2017 worlds and has medaled in two of the four world cups this season, Grimmette said, “The teamwork and the team spirit among our team is great.”
A total of 23 nations and 121 athletes are competing at worlds. The weather in Winterberg has been sunny and cold compared to the wet, rainy conditions of the past few years, which could lead to a record-breaking weekend.
The men’s training times have been eclipsing the existing track records, which can only be set during FIL-sanctioned competition, while the women’s and doubles times have been close to the marks.
Besides podium hopes in the team relay, Summer Britcher and Emily Sweeney are medal contenders in women’s singles.
Two-time Olympian Britcher is ranked third in the world cup standings and has reached the podium in three straight races, with a sprint silver in Lake Placid, New York, followed by singles silver in Koenigssee, Germany, and singles bronze in Sigulda, Latvia. She has five world cup career wins and was the gold medalist at the U23 world championships two years ago.
Hamlin, who won the sprint gold medal, silver in singles and was on the silver-medal-winning team relay at worlds in Igls, Austria, two years ago, said that Britcher carries the confidence of putting two good runs together and “she can really do some damage.”
Sweeney is No. 9 with a limited schedule this year in which she missed three of the eight races. Her top finish is a bronze in Lake Placid.
Both performed well on the Winterberg track last season. Sweeney was victorious in the world cup sprint race with Britcher second. The previous day, Britcher took the singles bronze.
“It’s a very long track, with pretty high speeds at the bottom, which I think is a lot of fun,” Britcher said. “I love competing on cold hard ice, and that’s what we’re going to be having this week, so I’m pretty excited.”
Although Britcher comes in with momentum, she knows that also brings pressure with it. She said she’ll try to channel how she felt at the Koenigssee world cup, when she had zero expectations because of the weather conditions.
“Sitting on the handles for the first run in Koenigssee, I just thought, ‘Hey, it’s so fun that I get to be doing this, competing at this high level, and just racing and putting it all on the line and it led to me having a great result,” said Britcher, who placed second in that race. “I’m trying to remember that moment, trying to remember that epiphany, but it’s hard to hold onto that carefree attitude when you have the pressure of world championships looming.”
Sweeney has eased into this season after a crash at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 in which she broke her neck and fractured her back. She was nearly sedentary for about six months.
“I try to have a good perspective of where I thought I would be going into the season, where thought I would be this week, and where I actually am,” Sweeney said. “Things still hurt while I slide and when I’m training, but I’m learning to manage it more, and it’s gotten a lot better, so I’ve definitely improved a lot with the way I’m handling the effects that sliding takes on your body.”
She skipped the last world cup in Latvia because her neck was not yet strong enough for that track and spent the extra time training in Winterberg.
“The good thing about Winterberg is it is a long track, and my strength is in my sliding,” she said, “so it gives me more track to make up time.”
The other favorites are reigning Olympic champion Natalie Geisenberger of Germany and teammate Julia Taubitz, who are ranked 1-2 in the world.
On the men’s side, Tucker West, a two-time Olympian and U23 world champion, and Jonny Gustafson, who is having a breakout year, have posted some of the fastest training times.
Mazdzer came in ranked No. 12, with West at No. 14 and Gustafson at No. 17.
“This track is start dominant,” said West. “It’s a little bit steeper of a ramp, but it kind of goes into a flat section which is awesome for the U.S. men. We have some of the top starts, so hopefully we can play off that strength heading into this weekend.”
Gustafson has shown consistency this season, although he doesn’t have much experience on this track.
“Mentally I’m doing much better with how I approach each race and how I approach the season,” he said. “Last year was a big learning curve for me. I got some time off and was able to reevaluate and go into the season with a good head. I have some hopes of sliding well, but really for me, I just want to have two clean consistent runs and see where that puts me.”
Olympic gold medalist Felix Loch of Germany, who has won 12 golds and two silvers in previous world championships, is again one of the favorites, along with teammate Johannes Ludwig, who leads the world standings. Reinhard Egger of Austria and Roman Repilov of Russia are also contenders.
Mazdzer and Terdiman are ranked sixth in doubles. After 10 years apart, they teamed up this year for the first time since they were paired as juniors. Winterberg is the first place they medaled as juniors and Terdiman also won his first senior world cup medal on this track with former partner Christian Niccum.
In Lake Placid last month, Mazdzer and Terdiman won the silver medal in sprint.
“Timing on the start is something that they’re still working on, which some doubles teams take years to get stuff down like that,” Hamlin said. “It’s shorter course for doubles in Winterberg and there are a couple of spots that are really tricky.”
Mazdzer said that Toni Eggert and Sascha Benecken of Germany “have pretty much won everything they wanted to win this year,” closely followed by Olympic champions Tobias Wendl and Tobias Arlt, also of Germany.
The male and female singles athletes with the best times will compete in team relay along with Mazdzer and Terdiman.
Even with Mazdzer’s neck issues, “I’m not counting them out,” said Sweeney. “I think as soon as they get on the sled, we’re good at rallying and we’re good at being resilient as a team.”