KOENIGSSEE, Germany – USA Luge wrapped up its return to the Eberspacher World Cup tour Sunday with a sixth-place effort in the Koenigssee team relay. The United States skipped the first four World Cup races this season as a result of concerns over the coronavirus and related travel and quarantine regulations, and is now chipping off the World Cup rust after being away from international racing for so long.
In the first race of the day, 2019 World Championship bronze medalist Emily Sweeney was the top American of four with a 10th place result in singles. Later, instead of racing the lead leg in the team relay, Sweeney headed to the airport for a flight home. She’s a member of the Army’s World Class Athlete Program (WCAP) and competed in Koenigssee on earned leave time. Currently, WCAP is not authorizing any temporary duty orders due to the pandemic.
The team relay group featured three of the four athletes who scored a World Championship bronze medal in Sochi last season. They were Summer Britcher and the doubles team of 2018 Olympic silver medalist Chris Mazdzer of Salt Lake City and two-time Olympian Jayson Terdiman of Berwick, Pa. Jonny Gustafson, of Massena, N.Y., rounded out the quartet Sunday. All three sleds posted sixth place times and finished in 2 minutes, 44.920 seconds.
Pyeongchang Olympian Sweeney of Lake Placid, in 12th place after one leg, rebounded in the second heat and improved to 10th place. Britcher, a 2014 and 2018 Olympian from Glen Rock, Pa., wound up 15th in the race. A pair of Park City racers also cracked the top 20. Ashley Farquharson, now in her second World Cup campaign, slid into 13th place, while Brittney Arndt was 16th.
Competing this season mostly in a German bubble due to COVID-19, the home nation added three medals Sunday, finishing with seven of the 12 that were distributed. But one team – Austria - has stepped forward to present a challenge. Now adding depth by the season, the Austrians captured the team relay, and Madeleine Egle, who has overcome a severe shoulder injury, took bronze in the women’s race. Austria won three medals in Koenigssee, while Russia collected the other two.
Julia Taubitz of Germany dusted the field in the opening race of the day. As a result of her fifth victory in seven starts, she is now just four points behind World Cup tour leader and four-time Olympic gold medal winner Natalie Geisenberger. Seven straight silver medals to open her season must be some kind of International Luge Federation record as Geisenberger has made her return after bringing her son into the world. She missed all of last year.
Taubitz had the two fastest heats, while Geisenberger, second in both legs, was a distant 0.3 of a second in arrears. Egle, third in both runs, finished 0.36 from Taubitz. The overall World Cup scoreboard shows Geisenberger with 595 points to her teammate’s 591. Another German, Dajana Eitberger, fifth on Sunday, is third on the season with 445 points. Anna Berreiter, the Nations Cup winner on Friday, was fourth in the World Cup race giving Germany four of the top five. The athletes at the upper end of the results list all displayed strong starts over Koenigssee’s long, flat first section.
Sweeney stood 12th after the opening run, but with the seventh fastest final attempt, was able to jump to 10th place.
Farquharson was in the midst of a top 10 opening heat finish, but encountered difficulties in the Kreisel (Circle) turn and beyond on Koenigssee’s technically demanding course. She drifted back to 15th place, but improved her second run time by nearly 0.1 of a second and moved up to 13th.
Britcher was 11th at the intermission, and began her second heat with the fourth best start time. However, she too struggled in the bent straightaway and ensuing Kriesel turn of the course to finish 15th.
In taking 16th place, Arndt showed significant acceleration and driving skill from start to finish, but she sacrificed time off the start handles.
In winning this event, Austria, along with two earlier silver medals, has closed the gap on first place Germany. The leaders, relegated to second place Sunday by 0.19 of a second, are atop the World Cup overall standings after four of six competitions. Germany has 345 points to Austria’s 325. Russia is third with 275.
Egle put her team in position with a second place run to start the relay. Nico Gleirscher, brother of Pyeongchang Olympic champion David Gleirscher, followed and put his group in first place. The doubles team of Thomas Steu and Lorenz Koeller, current World Cup leaders, got off the handles quickly when the gate opened and accelerated their team into the lead in 2:42.729.
The Germans were next. Taubitz, who won the earlier singles race, jetted into the early lead ahead of Egle. However, three-time Olympic champion Felix Loch, a winner in six of seven singles events this season, lost ground to Gleirscher by 0.2 in his run. The doubles team of Toni Eggert and Sascha Benecken had too much of a deficit to overcome. They slapped the touch pad to end the timing in 2:42.922. Russia completed their three runs 0.8 from the Austrians.
The three USA Luge sleds were sixth across the board in the team’s first relay since picking up a World Cup silver medal in Koenigssee 10 months ago at the World Cup final.
The World Cup now moves to Sigulda, Latvia for next weekend’s series. The trek begins with two charter flights bringing the tour to Riga, followed by the weekly COVID testing of all traveling members at the beginning of the week.