Top to bottom: Emily Sweeney, Summer Britcher and the team of Chris Mazdzer (top) and Jayson Terdiman. Photos: Fred Zimny
WINTERBERG, Germany – Emily Sweeney made her way all the way back Saturday from last year’s debilitating crash at the Olympics to win a bronze medal at the luge World Championships in Winterberg, Germany.
It was Sweeney’s first career World Championship podium result, and the 17th World Championship medal in United States team history. The 25-year-old was the 2013 Junior World Champion.
“I don’t know if it’s totally hit me yet,” said Sweeney on a media call shortly after the competition. “But I said going into this season, and going into this (Olympic) quad really, that knowing I did have an injury last year, I wasn’t looking for overall medals. I wanted the big medals. I want worlds medals and I want an Olympic medal, so to actually have one is crazy. I’m quite happy with that.”
In typical Winterberg fashion, weather wanted to make itself integral to the story.
“It kind of threw a little wrench in my mentality going to the track today knowing it was so warm out,” said Sweeney. The change came after more than 10 days of nearly ideal winter conditions and fast ice.
Sweeney began her season with a World Cup bronze at Whistler, before settling for two World Cup fourth places in Lake Placid and another in Friday’s World Championship sprint race. It looked like more of the same was on tap as Sweeney positioned herself into fourth place after Saturday’s opening heat. The Americans, at the intermission, were on the heels of Germans Natalie Geisenberger and Julia Taubitz, with Summer Britcher third and Sweeney next.
But the U.S. world medalist reeled off the second fastest final heat to grab third place. Britcher, in the ensuing sled, looked like she would overtake her teammate. The two-time Olympian was accelerating in the final heat as indicated by her split times, but as she neared the end of the Winterberg course, Britcher slipped back and wound up fifth, just 0.05 of a second from the podium.
The doubles race saw USA Luge’s Chris Mazdzer and Jayson Terdiman battle through some rain, warm temperatures and high humidity – not to mention Mazdzer’s neck ailment that has hampered him since early last week. The only U.S. sled in the field finished 11th.
Germany took four of six medals on the day, and now have 10 of 15 over the two days of these World Championships.
Understanding the alarming nature of her crash in South Korea, Sweeney sees how that mishap continues to be viewed. But instead of trying to change history, she has used it to make herself a better racer.
“What happened in Pyeongchang made me mentally stronger, in general,” she reflected. “All the clichés are true…..what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I’ve had a really challenging year and I think I’m better for it.
“Ten, 11 months ago I was pretty miserable, not gonna lie. The difference from then to now, does seem unreal. And all I can say is time makes things better. Time and a lot of work.”
Saturday afternoon’s race had a familiar ring to it. With the change in Winterberg’s weather, those with early start numbers figured to have an edge.
“I really thought I would be at a big disadvantage, but the track held up pretty well,” stated Sweeney. “I did have one mistake on my first run. I’m not someone who uses visual cues on many tracks, but I do have one visual cue here.”
That point was easily seen in training when there were few spectators, but on race day, Sweeney said it was blocked by a spectator.
“It threw me off a little bit and caused me to go early to one curve which just scrubbed some momentum. I recovered really well, very quickly from it, and continued on, but it definitely scrubbed a little bit of time for me on the bottom. The second run was really good. I have no complaints about it.”
Britcher began the race with bib number one and celebrated as she crossed the finish line after a run that would place her third.
Geisenberger and Taubitz were the third and fifth athletes, respectively, down the course. The former has been virtually unbeatable since picking up the 2010 Olympic bronze medal. She’s also a nine-time World Champion. In the midst of those crowns there have been two Olympic gold medals in singles and another two in the team relay.
Geisenberger is also unflappable. Despite having to reset her first run due to a technical issue on the track, she could not be iced. She sat on the start handles just seconds from starting her first run when time out was called by race organizers to attend to the matter.
Geisenberger retrieved to the confines of the start house. When she was called out a few minutes later, nothing had changed. The predominant race favorite, Geisenberger put herself back in race mode and opened a 0.2 of a second gap over Taubitz, with Britcher 0.26 behind, followed by Sweeney, 0.32 off the pace.
The race order was reversed for the final heat, with the contenders ending the event. But as the afternoon wore on, the track seemed to hold up for everyone as essentially all 20 finalists posted second leg times that were better than their first.
Geisenberger put down the two best runs of the race and clocked 1 minute, 53.868 seconds. Taubitz, who claimed the U23 World Championship, struggled to begin her second heat, but held on for the silver medal in 1:54.293. Sweeney’s second attempt was only bettered by the winner. That effort enabled the American to claim the bronze on one of the longest women’s courses on the international circuit. That trait played into Sweeney’s hands as it gave her more track to use her driving skills. Her two runs totaled 1:54.381. The medal now seems quite remote from South Korea.
A consistently quick starter, Britcher has become a fan of the Winterberg layout despite its quirky start. To get the run underway, there are two slight changes of direction. The athletes, ideally, try to thread a straight line through that opening section and get their run underway with no excessive turning. Britcher mastered that in both heats and kept gaining valuable fractions thereafter. Somehow, however, the clock determined that there were slight time losses at the end, which dropped her from third to fifth.
“Overall, I am pretty happy with my performance,” she said later. “My first run was nearly perfect which put me in a great position. I had a few mistakes my second run, but overall, it was a pretty decent run. I’m a little disappointed to have dropped back, but I’m really proud of myself for leaving it all on the line and not holding back, and I’m really proud of Emily for throwing it down on the second run and putting USA on the podium.”
Russian Tatyana Ivanova raced in between the Americans, in fourth place, thanks to the third fastest final heat. Britcher recorded 1:54.437.
“We’re a strong team and this isn’t something out of nowhere,” the Glen Rock, Pa. resident pointed out. “I think we’re continuing to prove that we’re a team and we’re here fighting. Any weekend, any track, we have the potential to succeed.”
The World Championship doubles race was a movie with a familiar ending where Germany takes gold and silver, with Austria in the bronze position. Saturday was no different, although the plot had a second heat twist.
Toni Eggert and Sascha Benecken, 2018 Olympic bronze medalists, spotted teammates Tobias Wendl and Tobias Arlt the first run lead by 0.04 of a second, before blasting right by them with the fastest final heat to take the world title. It was their second gold medal in 24 hours after Friday’s win in the doubles sprint.
Wendl and Arlt, double Olympic champions, took the silver medal with Austrians Thomas Steu and Lorenz Koller picking up the bronze. The results mirrored the sprint race.
Eggert and Benecken clocked 1:27.256; Wendl and Arlt were 0.07 of a second from the winners; Steu and Koller were another 0.07 from second place. A pair of Latvian teams were fourth and fifth.
Mazdzer and Terdiman, after placing fifth in the sprint event, were 11th as Mazdzer continues to push through a severe neck strain incurred here at the start of international training week. The condition nearly sent him home, according to his post on social media. They mustered a final time of 1:27.720.
“Today’s runs weren’t bad,” stated Terdiman, a two-time Olympian, from Berwick, Pa. He and Mazdzer had a total of three training runs over two weeks. “We knew going in we were at a big disadvantage without as much training as our opponents. I took today as another day of training to best prepare us for the team relay tomorrow. I believe we (the entire team) have an incredible opportunity to shine in the relay, and I’m very much looking forward to trying to get Team USA back on the World Championships podium.”
The team relay will end the 48th World Championships tomorrow afternoon. Action continues with men’s singles beginning Sunday at 5:10 AM ET with men’s singles.
Fans can follow via live streaming on OlympicChannel.com. Broadcast coverage is scheduled from Winterberg on the Olympic Channel Jan. 26 from 7 - 8:30 PM ET and Jan. 27 from 2 – 3 PM ET; NBC Sports Network Jan. 27 from 6 – 8 PM ET and Jan. 28 from 10:30 PM – midnight ET.