Tucker West slides during the men's singles luge at the Olympic Games PyeongChang 2018 on Feb. 10, 2018 in Pyeongchang-gun, South Korea.
The U.S. luge team members bring a wide array of experience and health into this weekend’s world cup opener. One thing they can all agree on, though: the season can’t start soon enough.
“I don’t know what it is but I’m so excited to race this year,” said Jonny Gustafson, who’s entering his second full season of racing the senior world cup circuit. “In June I wanted to get back on the ice and get ready. This is the most excited I’ve been for a season, and I’m ready to get to it.”
The team is in Igls, Austria, for the first world cup races of the season on Saturday and Sunday, and from there the sliders will return home for a post-Thanksgiving stop in two-time Olympic host city Lake Placid, New York. The season continues into early March.
Also ready to go, at least mentally, is three-time Olympian and 2018 men’s singles silver medalist Chris Mazdzer. Physically, however, is a slightly different story.
“Mentally I’m 100 percent there and so excited for the season, but my body isn’t holding up quite as well as I would have liked,” said Mazdzer, who underwent season-ending shoulder surgery last year. “The surgery I had last spring was my left shoulder, and that’s the best part of my body. That’s amazing. But I have a torn tendon in my elbow and my other shoulder’s bothering me.”
That won’t keep him off the sled, however. Mazdzer will for the second season race both singles and doubles with partner and two-time Olympian Jayson Terdiman, and although the two have fewer than 35 runs together so far this season — about half of what they had at this point last year, Terdiman said — they feel their experience both individually and together will make up for lost time.
“Chris and I are going on almost 18 years knowing each other now,” said Terdiman, who partnered with Mazdzer in doubles when they were both juniors before re-teaming last year and finishing eighth overall on the world cup. “When we started doubles together we were only 14 years old, so I don’t think we’re in a bad spot. I know we haven’t taken the amount of runs our opponents have but we know how to slide, we know how to compete and we know how to win medals together. We’ve done that for a long time.”
The two will debut a new sled customized to their physical dimensions and sliding styles this weekend and are hoping to improve on the 10th-place finish they started last season with in Igls.
“If we can do better than that it’s a small victory to start the season, and I do believe it’s possible because this new sled is by far more aerodynamic and we feel really good on it,” Terdiman said.
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Rounding out the men’s singles team is two-time Olympian and three-time world cup winner Tucker West.
On the women’s side, reigning world championships bronze medalist Emily Sweeney finds herself in a much different position this year than she was when racing began in 2018. A year ago Sweeney was still recovering from a horrific crash at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 and skipped the season opener, although she came back the following weekend and finished third at the world cup stop in Whistler, British Columbia.
She’s still experiencing some pain as a result of her crash at the Winter Games, she said, and with still being somewhat limited in the weight room she focused much of her offseason preparation on her mental game. And although she’s happy to have won her first world championship medal last year, the experience in PyeongChang has also changed her views somewhat on race outcomes.
“I think that medals are always validating for the work that not only you but the coaches and the team staff puts into it, but now I don’t feel like I need medals to validate my journey of sport,” she said.
Two-time Olympian Summer Britcher returns as USA Luge’s all-time world cup singles winner with five victories. She’s finished third the past two seasons in the world cup standings and said that consistency has been due to a shift in focus.
“A few years ago when I was an inexperienced athlete I definitely had a lot of my focus externally,” she said. “I was focused on what other athletes were doing, how they would be coming in, if they were doing well and how I’d match up. A few years ago I made the shift to be more internally focused and not worry about things outside my control. It’s really helped with my consistency.”
For that reason, Britcher isn’t getting too excited about what should be a more open women’s field this year. The German squad took at least two out of every three podium spots every weekend of world cup racing last season, but this year four-time Olympic gold medalist Natalie Geisenberger and 2018 Olympic silver medalist Dajana Eitberger are both out on maternity leave and fellow Olympic medalist Tatjana Huefner retired.
“My focus is on being the best regardless of who isn’t here,” Britcher said. “I’d be a weak athlete if I saw this as a greater opportunity.”
Joining Sweeney and Britcher are Brittney Arndt, who was in contention to win the Lillehammer Cup last month as the first-heat leader, and world cup rookie Ashley Farquharson, who finished fourth last year at the junior world championships.
The women’s singles and men’s doubles races will be held on Saturday, and the men’s singles and team relay will be on Sunday. There will be a live stream on OlympicChannel.com as well as broadcast coverage on Saturday from 5:30 to 7 p.m. and on Sunday from 6 to 7 p.m. NBCSN will also air coverage on Saturday from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m., all eastern time.
Karen Price is a reporter from Pittsburgh who has covered Olympic and Paralympic sports for various publications. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.