YANQING, China – After all the travel, heart-wrenching qualification processes, COVID tests, lost racing equipment and a compressed World Cup season, a total of 70 singles luge racers and another 36 doubles athletes have returned to the Yanqing National Sliding Center.
This time, however, it’s to settle the ultimate score – the 12 Olympic luge medals that dangle over the 26 gathered nations in the 2022 Beijing Olympic Winter Games.
A November training and racing period that could have gone smoother and more welcoming is now a distant memory. What’s about to happen will be historic - Beijing is the first Olympic host to ever conduct both the Summer and Winter Games. The Opening Ceremony is slated for Friday night in China, early morning in the United States.
Jonny Gustafson will be one of four first-time Olympians on the American team among the eight that will march into Beijing National Stadium, also used in the summer of 2008 and known as the Bird’s Nest.
Now that he’s finally here, the Massena, N.Y. native has let himself realize his place as an Olympic athlete.
“Getting the haul of gear (from the USOPC) is when I realized, ‘I’m an Olympian now’,” said Gustafson. “I kept putting the thought off in my head just because of everything going on. We had to make sure I got here. I had to make sure that when I got here, I was safe. Had to make sure everything was all good. But getting into the room (at the Athletes Village) and getting the gear and everything, it all kind of hit me at once.”
Another first-time qualifier is Ashley Farquharson, who won her first World Cup medal here in November as part of the relay team that took a silver medal.
“It really hit me that was going to the Games when I posted about it on my socials,” said the Park City, Utah resident. “There was an overwhelming amount of support from anyone that I’ve ever met. It’s like this is real. This is happening. And now that I’m here, it cemented itself and every moment feels a little bit surreal.”
The doubles team of Zack DiGregorio of Medway, Mass. and Sean Hollander of Lake Placid complete the foursome of Olympic rookies on this team of eight. Doubles will begin training on Saturday.
On Tuesday morning, training started for the men’s and women’s Olympic singles races, to be contested Feb. 5-6 for men (6 AM EST) and Feb. 7-8 (6:30 AM EST) for women on a long, unique track that combines some features from Nagano with its uphill sections, and Paramonovo, Russia, with its shallow, low-pressure curves. But a funny thing about those two courses – no one goes there anymore. So how do you get acclimated to Yanqing when you have no reference points, and you’ve spent little time on the layout prior to these Games?
Rhetorical questions certainly, but heightened excitement definitely, as perhaps the most level playing field in recent Olympics was unwittingly created by a pandemic that kept every team save China away from the venue until three months ago.
Nevertheless, conditions for these races will be ripe for track records. In fact, several marks unofficially fell during singles training, and with cold weather leading to hard, fast ice, the pattern should continue. Daily conditions have been clear and cold; nighttime temps are expected to fall through the 20s over the period of the competitions.
The luge schedule at Yanqing will conclude with doubles on Feb. 9 and the team relay Feb. 10. They, too, will be morning races in the U.S.
Live streaming of all competitions can be found at https://www.nbcolympics.com/schedule/sport/luge. Also, Peacock offers live coverage of every run.