Matthew Mortensen and Jayson Terdiman compete at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 on Feb. 14, 2018 in PyeongChang, South Korea.
Like most everything this past year, the 2020-21 season has been very different for members of the U.S. luge team.
From getting a later start than usual on the track to skipping the first half of the racing season, the team only started competing internationally at the beginning of the month and now the athletes are already getting ready this weekend’s world championships, which are part of the Team USA Champions Series, presented by Xfinity.
Even with all the challenges, however, they’re happy to be where they are.
“I know for me personally, and I believe for Chris (Mazdzer) as well, being on the sled is the most normal thing we can be doing right now,” said Jayson Terdiman, who competes in doubles with Mazdzer. “For me, the sport has always been the most fun thing. Sliding is a blast; it always has been, it always will be. I find normalcy there, which really helps me mentally deal with what’s going on outside of the realm of sport and try to take things day by day, as everyone is.”
Typically the team gets together in late September or early October for a training camp that runs 10 days to two weeks. That didn’t happen this year, and then in October USA Luge announced it would sit out the first four world cup weekends of the season and remain in the United States.
After training in Lake Placid, New York, in November and December, the team finally made its way to Europe. Just after the New Year the the Americans started off at the same track where they’ll be competing this weekend, in Koenigssee, Germany.
“To put it in baseball terms, it’s the Yankee Stadium of luge tracks,” said two-time Olympian Tucker West. “It’s probably 90 percent of the field’s favorite track. It’s difficult to make it down, and it’ll bite you if you do it wrong, but no matter what you’ll come up with a smile on your face.”
One of the defining characteristics of the track is the bend away, West said, a flat surface where you can really see the steerability of the sleds in action. Another big feature of the track is the “S” curves.
“Koenigssee is a beautiful track that definitely has a demon lying within it,” said Mazdzer, the three-time Olympian who became the first U.S. man to medal in singles at the Olympics when he won silver in PyeongChang in 2018. “Those curves are really tricky and if you mess it up, it’s not good. Every time you pull off the top, those S curves are always in the back of your mind. … You’re always flirting on the edge of disaster, and that’s what makes the track fun and also makes you really awake before your first run.”
The U.S. relay team placed sixth that first weekend in Koenigssee, and the best individual finish belonged to Emily Sweeney, in 10th place.
Sweeney’s circumstances this month have been even more difficult than those of her teammates. A member of the U.S. Army’s World Class Athlete Program and National Guard, the 2018 Olympian and 2019 world championships bronze medalist was able to compete that first weekend in Koenigssee on earned leave. Afterward, she had to return to the U.S. because the WCAP was not authorizing any temporary duty orders because of COVID-19. That changed mid-January, and Sweeney rejoined the team last weekend in Igls, Austria, for the last race before world championships.
“It’s been a lot to deal with, I’m not going to sugar coat it,” said Sweeney, who finished 12th in Igls. “I think that, like anything, we’re getting really good at getting through things. It definitely didn’t put me in the ideal spot for right now but I’m figuring it out and I think I had the first race under my belt now and I’ll be ready for world championships.”
After a handful of top 10 finishes over the four world cup stops this month, the U.S. got its first world cup medal of the season on Sunday when two-time Olympian Summer Britcher took bronze in women’s singles in Igls.
“It felt really good,” Britcher said afterward. “I’ve had fun racing, but a little frustrated with myself. More than looking for results, I try to have runs that I’m really proud of and then no matter what the result I can be happy. I haven’t felt that way with the races so far. It’s been hard missing the first half of the season to get back into the swing of things, but the sun’s shining, the mountains are beautiful, I have great teammates, a great mood, and I was able to throw down two runs that I could be proud of.”
Mazdzer plans to race both doubles with Terdiman and singles on Saturday, joining West and Jonny Gustafson in the latter competition. Joining Sweeney and Britcher on the women’s side on Sunday are Ashley Farquharson and Brittany Arndt.
This will be the 50th FIL Luge World Championships, and will include 48 women, 43 men and 29 doubles teams from 23 countries. The event was initially supposed to be held in Whistler, British Columbia, but was moved to Germany because of the ongoing pandemic. Spectators are not permitted.
The last time the world championships were held at Koenigssee was in 2016, and the Germans dominated. Felix Loch is the runaway favorite to earn his seventh singles world title after winning for the ninth time this season in Igls. Among the favorites on the women’s side is four-time singles world champion Natalie Geisenberger, also of Germany.