PARK CITY, Utah – Halloween came a week later in the Wasatch Mountains Saturday night as some unexpected “sightings” became reality in the second and final Norton USA Luge Seeding Race, held on the 2002 Olympic track in Park City, Utah.
With the weather turning clear and the region freed of falling precipitation, a fast, gliding track became, “eight or nine-tenths faster,” according to men’s winner Aidan Kelly. It was a noticeable change from the training conditions throughout the week.
“This was the fastest ice we’ve seen since we’ve been here,” said doubles racer Matt Mortensen. “Every day that we’ve trained so far there’s been a little precipitation. We weren’t getting a spritz before the sessions either. So last night the temperature dropped really low and it made for great conditions today.”
Great and possibly surprising.
The United States top men’s singles racers – Chris Mazdzer and Tucker West – crashed on the upper part of the track, knocking them out of contention in the seeding event and maybe the Norton National Championships as the night’s two singles heats also counted toward tomorrow’s national finale.
West, last week’s winner of the first seeding race in Lake Placid, and Mazdzer, who was the runner-up, were able to collect their sleds and complete the runs, at least keeping them in the game. West and Mazdzer, to their credit, re-grouped between heats and posted the top two times, respectively, in the last leg.
Based on their performances last season, they were exempt from qualifying via the seeding races. Mazdzer, of Saranac Lake, N.Y., finished fifth in the World Cup standings and West, of Ridgefield, Conn., placed sixth overall.
In an amusing side note, it was the luge races in the Salt Lake City Olympic Winter Games that caught West’s interest, led to the backyard track built by his father and lured him into the sport.
The competition had added meaning for Kelly and Taylor Morris, who were battling for the third and final men’s World Cup berth. The results of last week’s seeding race, together with this event, would determine the selection.
It was eerily reminiscent of the scene nearly two years ago, when a December World Cup race in Park City – the last race in the qualification period - determined the final U.S. Olympic berth between the same two sliders.
Kelly, of West Islip, N.Y., was fourth on his home track in Lake Placid, good enough for 60 points. Morris, of South Jordan, Utah, placed third, however, giving him the upper hand with 70 points. But when Kelly captured tonight’s race in 1 minute, 32.384 seconds and took the accompanying 100 winners points, his 160 point total edged Morris, who received 85 second place points for a total of 155. The Utahn was 0.2 of a second slower than Kelly on the night.
“It’s terrible. It’s hard to describe,” said Kelly. “We’re a little more mature now. We were wishing each other luck. May the best man win. Neither of us was going to hold it against one another. But you never want to take your friend’s season away.
“There’s still a chance that he’ll get to come with us. I really hope he does because I love sliding with Taylor. He’s a very encouraging teammate.”
Mazdzer, West and Kelly – all Olympians – will comprise the U.S. entry in men’s singles when the World Cup tour commences in three weeks in Igls, Austria.
It was a similar scene in women’s singles, where Raychel Germaine, of Roswell, Ga., continued to impress. The graduating junior was in a battle with Vancouver Olympian Julia Clukey, of Augusta, Maine, for the fourth and final World Cup women’s spot.
Germaine, third last week for 70 points while Clukey was fourth for 60 points, took the opening run lead in a heat that found Sochi Olympic bronze medalist and 2009 World Champion Erin Hamlin of Remsen, N.Y., surprisingly, in fifth place after a problem at the start. Lake Placid seeding race winner Emily Sweeney, of Suffield, Conn. was third.
Not to worry, though, as Hamlin, Sweeney and Summer Britcher of Glen Rock, Pa., were all exempt from qualifying as a result of their 2014-2015 World Cup results.
Sweeney came from third place in the last run to claim the gold medal in 1:28.752 and sweep the seeding events. She finished ahead of Britcher by 0.16 of a second, with Germaine slipping to third. Yet the bronze medalist once again stayed ahead of Clukey, who went down fighting. She had the second best final run – faster than Germaine, but not enough to overtake her in total race time or total seeding points. Germaine, helped by a faster start and some new sled set-ups, overcame the pressure and grabbed the last spot, 140 points to 120.
“I was nervous. I was shaking at the start,” Germaine said of her time between runs. “I don’t think I’ve been in a more nerve-wracking place before because this is with the big dogs. Honestly, I had to wipe away my fear. I have a Bible verse I say to myself every time I’m on the handles before I go and that calms my nerves a lot. But I had to put the nerves aside, rip a start and make it down.”
As was the case with Kelly and Morris, the Park City venue has not been kind to Clukey, who was edged out of an Olympic berth here two seasons ago by only .013 of a second.
The doubles seeding event dealt more with pride and less with drama. Nothing was at stake, by comparison, but the desire to be the kings of the Utah Olympic Park. That battle went to the most experienced, although 2014 Olympians Mortensen and Jayson Terdiman, the race winners, only have one season together. Yet that’s one more than the team of Justin Krewson and Andrew Sherk, and the sled of Jake Hyrns and Anthony Espinoza.
Mortensen, of Huntington Station, N.Y. and Terdiman, of Berwick, Pa. had many years with other sled mates prior to becoming a team in the spring of 2014. Their trips down the course totaled 1:28.705, besting Krewson, of Eastport, N.Y. and Sherk, of Fort Washington, Pa., who recorded 1:28.827. Hyrns, of Muskegon, Mich. and Espinoza of Park City were over a second behind.
“As I said last week, we really want to focus on our starts,” said Terdiman. “We set a goal for ourselves of pulling an .07 (3.07 seconds). We did pull that in the first run today and followed that with an .08 which were our two fastest starts of the week. We’re hoping tomorrow to drop another hundredth. We’d like to see an .06 out of ourselves.”
As for the runs?
“The two runs weren’t perfect,” he continued. “No runs are perfect, but I think we have another tenth (of a second) in there somewhere. In some of the bigger curves we didn’t push the pressure as much as we’d like to. So tomorrow morning we’re hoping to let that fly and give us a little more of a gap between on our teammates. But having the younger guys behind us is awesome. They’re going to push us to be the best we can be.”
All three units will campaign on the World Cup circuit.
After a short night, the respective fields return to the ice on Sunday for the conclusion of the Norton National Championships. Race time is 11 AM Mountain Time / 1 PM Eastern Time.
Audio interviews with winners below