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Luge season reprise

By Sandy Caligiore | March 19, 2021, 9:32 a.m. (ET)

LAKE PLACID, N.Y. - Across the sports landscape, the years 2020 into 2021 will be noted as arguably the most memorable in history. Trying to understand the path and lifespan of the coronavirus proved to be futile at best. Schedules in all sports have been changing on the fly. Policies established one day were nullified or changed a week later.

On May 18, 2020, as the North Country region of New York State entered Phase Two of reopening, USA Luge enacted a safety plan for its indoor start training facility. After consulting with Basil Falcone of EnviroNova and following CDC guidelines, strict policies dictated two athletes at a time in the building, all masked and distanced, plus cleansing regimens for all equipment. Athlete temperature, pulse and blood oxygenation levels were checked at the lone entry point of the facility. Additionally, the building’s air filtration system was upgraded to MERV 13 standards. The plan was viewed as a model for safe opening in the Olympic community. A weight training area was also constructed in the building to help athletes stay ready for the season ahead.

Athlete COVID testing became a part of all training routines once such tests became available.

These regulations set the tone for the remainder of the season, seeing USA Luge work with key organizations nationally and internationally, including the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, the International Luge Federation, the NY Olympic Regional Development Authority and the Utah Olympic Legacy Foundation, among others. Navigating the constantly changing regulatory environment created challenges for every team, from the elite athletes racing in World Cups to the young development athletes in Lake Placid and Park City.

For sport leadership, it’s been daunting. The most significant coronavirus casualties in luge were the double postponements of the pre-Olympic training and racing weeks at the 2022 Olympic venue in Beijing. These important sessions were first scheduled in the fall and then in late February. Unfortunately, both were scrapped due to travel concerns. The next attempt to get the world’s fastest athletes on this new track will be in November 2021, just three months prior the Winter Games.

The two most recent World Cup luge seasons were examples of good planning and dumb luck. The latter first: when the world came to a halt in March 2020, the competitive luge campaign had just concluded, with no harm occurring and no loss of events. This timing allowed for months of planning, studying the science and seeing what made the most sense moving forward.

The junior luge World Cup season in 2020-2021 was a casualty as the recent winter season was canceled. The year 2020-2021 for the USA Luge junior national team has been one of training in Lake Placid. The International Luge Federation (FIL) concentrated its efforts on the World Cup and World Championship campaign. Those efforts, however, included moving Lake Placid’s annual World Cup race to Germany. The same fate impacted the World Championships in Whistler, British Columbia, a friendly race location for USA Luge over the years, as the premier event of the winter was also relocated to Germany.

In all, seven of the 10 total competitions were held in the German bubble. The international organization’s concept proved prescient, albeit with a decided advantage for German racers who claimed approximately 50 percent of the medals issued over the 10 stops. With double testing every week for 10 weeks – a total of 6,000 COVID tests administered to 300 individuals – there were merely four positive results and none of them among the athletes.

“This was a remarkable feat against any conceivable benchmark,” said Jim Leahy, USA Luge CEO.

As a result of the travel restrictions and quarantine mandates, Leahy, in collaboration with his coaching staff, athletes, trainers and board of directors, made the decision to keep the American athletes at home for not only the first four weeks of the season, but the entire fall training period which would have normally started in late September in Norway. The eight national team members were essentially sequestered in their new indoor start training center, augmented by the addition of a weight room last spring. This kept the team in its Lake Placid bubble from spring to the Christmas holidays.

In late December, USA Luge athletes and coaches embarked for Europe for the final five World Cup meets and the World Championships. Understandably, it was a catch-up season for the Americans. European competition had more training runs and four races under their belts, while the United States was just getting their abbreviated competition season underway.

Each week, the U.S. showed improvement, starting on New Year’s weekend and concluding six weeks later in Switzerland. The highlight was Summer Britcher’s World Cup bronze medal in Innsbruck, Austria, accompanied by a collection of top 10 performances by the 2014 and 2018 Olympian. Emily Sweeney also recorded several top 10 results in a season that, for her, was even shorter. Sweeney, a 2018 Olympian and 2019 World Championship bronze medalist, is a member of the U.S. Army’s World Class Athlete Program. Due to the Army’s international travel restrictions, Sweeney did not compete in as many events as her teammates.

Chris Mazdzer, 2018 Olympic silver medalist and three-time Olympian, showed his versatility. The only athlete on the circuit racing singles and doubles continued his leadership role on the men’s team despite two surgeries in early 2020 just prior to the pandemic. With doubles partner Jayson Terdiman, a two-time Olympian, the lone U.S. doubles sled on the circuit this year gradually worked their way into the top 10 with a season-best ninth on the final weekend.

The season’s conclusion in St. Moritz, Switzerland was part of a television package that saw the team highlighted on NBC and NBC Sports Network over five shows. A one-hour program from the World Championships aired on NBC to an audience of 640,000 households (over one million sets of eyes), an increase of 40 percent over the previous year.

“This was great news for our organization and sponsors,” said Gordy Sheer, 1998 Olympic silver medalist and Director of Marketing and Sponsorships. “To have that kind of rating in a non-Olympic year tells us much about our sport and our team, and as we get closer to the 2022 Games, interest will only increase. It’s an exciting time for all parties.”

TEAM WORK

The sport of luge is largely individual in nature, but there is a team relay that brings together four athletes per nation. This recent addition made its Olympic debut in 2014 and has been a big hit ever since. It consists of one women’s singles sled, one men’s singles sled and one in doubles.

The female athlete pulls from the start handles and gets her team’s race underway. As she reaches the bottom of the course, there is a touch pad overhead that she must hit. When that occurs, the start gate at the top opens for the male singles slider. Reaction time is crucial, and this is where USA Luge excels with Tucker West the quickest on tour in his move from the handles. Once the male racer approaches the end of his run, he, too, must engage the touch pad which triggers the gate again for the doubles sled. The Mazdzer/Terdiman duo, like West, is among the best in the all-important reaction start.

As all of this is occurring, the clock runs continuously from the first sled through the third. When the doubles team hits the pad, the clock stops and registers the team’s total time. If a luger misses the touch pad at any point, their team is disqualified. And yes, it has occurred more often than one might think, adding to the exciting and sometimes random nature of this event.

Over the years, USA Luge has medaled many times in World Cup and World Championship events, including recent silver and bronze medals in the World Championships. At the 2021 worlds, the Britcher-West-Mazdzer/Terdiman foursome finished just out of the medals in fourth place. USA Luge also settled for fourth place at the 2018 Olympic Games. Needless to say, this is a nation to watch when the team relay is contested at the Beijing Winter Games.

After the World Cup finals in St. Moritz, Switzerland, the team headed to Lake Placid, N.Y. Upon arrival, the circle, as it began, was closed with COVID testing and a quarantine period.

But now, all eyes are firmly planted on Beijing and reaching maximum performance in a year’s time. The Americans continued training in Lake Placid and Park City, Utah until mid-March. Earlier this month, Mazdzer worked in a trip to the San Diego Wind Tunnel along with technical director Jon Owen. The final weeks of sliding also saw the team test new technology and sled setups. As one pictures NASCAR practice sessions on ice, it’s important to note that USA Luge has reached into that world and has benefitted from the services of Colby Mazzuca, an aerodynamic specialist and CFD engineer. His firm, AeroWorks LLC, also consults with Richard Childress Racing, who, like USA Luge, are also sponsored by Dow. Mazzuca attended the wind tunnel session virtually.

“Everything we do from this point forward is with one goal in mind: taking all steps to reach the Olympic podium,” said Leahy. “Beijing, for us, is the Super Bowl. It’s when the most people are paying attention, and when all Americans are pulling for the fellow countrymen to achieve greatness. As part of the Team USA contingent in China, we want to make a contribution to the nation’s overall success.”

Finally, USA Luge wishes to thank its sponsors and supporters who stood by us through a challenging year. The organization made some very difficult decisions in the name of athlete health and the team is grateful for everyone who backed their safety and season-long efforts.