LAKE PLACID, N.Y. - After collecting a pair of silver medals in the recently-concluded World Cup events in Lake Placid, the United States Luge Team seems to be eyeing the Sochi Winter Olympics in a year’s time as its athlete performances are on the uptick.
The build-up to those Games, it could be said, started on the opening day of the 2012-2013 season when Julia Clukey, striving to return from physical setbacks, raced out of the gate with a World Cup sixth place finish outside Innsbruck, Austria.
As her confidence grew each week, she added two more sixth and a seventh place result to her accomplishments to put her firmly in the World Cup top 10. When she reached the podium in Lake Placid for the first time in her career, the 2010 Olympian from Augusta, Maine did it twice. Just last Friday, she scored a World Cup silver in women’s singles, and then backed it up as the lead-off leg Saturday in the team relay. Her quartet took another silver medal.
"I think we had a great weekend," said Clukey. "Our younger athletes had some personal bests. All four women were in the top 10. Chris (Mazdzer) was fifth, Taylor (Morris) was seventh. It was the second week of personal bests for them. It’s going to be huge for us going to Sochi. We’re going to keep the momentum rolling and keep attacking. We’ve been right there all season, progressively moving forward. I think we’re taking some big leaps now, and I think we’ll continue to do so."
"Congratulations to our athletes for as fine a group performance as we’ve ever turned in," said USA Luge Executive Director and CEO Ron Rossi." Two medals, three men in the top 11, all four women in the top nine, both doubles teams in the top eight, and seven personal best performances all combined to make for arguably our greatest team-wide performance ever."
Clukey’s return from Arnold-Chiari Syndrome, where she needed eight millimeters of bone shaved from the base of her skull to relieve symptoms of headaches, fatigue and nausea, could end up in a medical journal. Clukey is now the team’s top-ranked World Cup racer, currently sitting in sixth place on the season. That’s a lofty perch from which she has never stood. But if she looks back, she will see Erin Hamlin on her heels.
The 2009 World Champion and two-time Olympian, Hamlin, of Remsen, N.Y., is also pining for a return to the podium. That’s a place she has visited five times since her dramatic 2009 victory. Hamlin had a season best fifth place on Friday.
Mazdzer and Morris, now solidified as rising stars on the men’s team, have gained on the world’s top competitors. In a sport where sleds are separated by thousandths of a second, Mazdzer and Morris have gained light years in the past two weeks.
Three years ago at the Vancouver Olympics, Mazdzer reached a career best 13th place result. On the very same course 10 days ago at Whistler, the Saranac Lake, N.Y. luger was sixth. He followed that with fifth place a week later at the Lake Placid World Cup.
Morris, in just his first full season of international racing, has shown weekly improvement all winter. At the World Championships, the South Jordan, Utah athlete scored the silver medal in the under 23 World Championships. One week later, he tied for seventh in Lake Placid.
For good measure, teammate Joe Mortensen, of Huntington Station, N.Y., was a personal best 11th in Lake Placid.
"At the beginning of the season, I made some changes to the coaching staff and those changes, obviously combined with great athletic performances, have proven successful," said U.S. Sport Program Director Mark Grimmette, an Olympic silver and bronze medalist. "We are seeing momentum on the National and Junior National teams, as proven by a string of personal bests and medal-winning performances at the World Championships, Junior World Championships and the World Cup race in Lake Placid this weekend."
The squad has a unique blend of veteran athletes and younger racers, all showing potential to now threaten for medals against any international field.
The first signs of that occurred 13 months ago at the Youth Olympic Games when Summer Britcher, of Glen Rock, Pa., Tucker West, of Ridgefield, Conn., Ty Andersen, of Alpine, Utah, and Pat Edmunds of Park City, Utah scored a gold medal in the team relay. All four continue to race at the Junior World Cup and Junior World Championship level.
A month ago in Park City, Emily Sweeney, of Suffield, Conn. won the Junior World Championship. A day later, Sweeney collaborated with West, Andersen and Anthony Espinoza, also of Park City, for a team relay bronze medal. On their own, Andersen, the tallest man in luge at 6-foot-7, and Espinoza, won the Junior World Championship bronze medal in doubles, finishing just 0.02 from the winners.
Sweeney, a dynamo with a perpetual smile, has spent most of her season racing in the World Cup and, despite injuries, has chipped away at her personal best plateaus. The 19 year old was ninth in Lake Placid, and will look to improve upon that in Sochi Feb. 24-25.
Another teammate and 2008 World Junior Champion, Kate Hansen, of La Canada, Calif., cracked the top 10 of a World Cup meet one year ago. Her seventh place on Friday marked another PB.
A key element in the improvement of Sweeney and Hansen lies in the new coaching duties that Grimmette put in place between seasons. He elevated the knowledgeable Miro Zayonc from Junior National Team Head Coach, where he worked with virtually every current U.S. elite racer as they moved through the ranks, to National Team Head Coach.
"I’d also like to congratulate the coaching staff, and in particular Mark Grimmette as the Sports Program Director and Miro Zayonc as the Head Coach," continued Rossi. "After last season, Mark and I agreed to make some adjustments to the coaching lineup. The first decision was for Mark to voluntarily relinquish his head coaching duties so that he could more fully concentrate on his sports program duties, and then later on, we made the decision to install Miro into the Head Coach role. It took some patience, but that decision has allowed us to turn the corner. Mark and Miro should be proud of this weekend’s result, one of the best team performances in recent history, if not of all-time."
The sum total of these achievements position USA Luge perfectly for the selection process in nominating the Sochi Olympic Team to the United States Olympic Committee, that is to say, making the group highly competitive in each division to the point that no berths are guaranteed.
Only three men and three women will be taken in the singles divisions, while just two sleds will enter the Sochi Olympic doubles race.
In the men’s conversation, there will be no fewer than six athletes that will battle for the privilege of representing their country.
On the women’s side, there appears to be a group of five that will have to separate their friendships from the job at hand once they get to the track.
In addition, the scenario within the ranks of the doubles teams seems to be highly competitive with four sleds looking for the two slots. Two of them achieved noteworthy results in Lake Placid: Matt Mortensen, of Huntington Station, N.Y. and Preston Griffall, of Salt Lake City, Utah took a season-best sixth, while Jake Hyrns, of Muskegon, Mich. and Andrew Sherk, of Fort Washington, Pa., only one year removed from the junior ranks, had a PB eighth.
The top doubles sled of the past two years, Christian Niccum, of Woodinville, Wash. and Jayson Terdiman, of Berwick, Pa., has been idle all year awaiting Niccum’s return from back and Achilles surgery. They received medical clearance this week and will finally race in Sochi later this month. And then there are the juniors, Andersen and Espinoza, who show the promise to potentially be in the mix next season.
As their sleds are being shipped on the long trip from Lake Placid to Sochi, the team will engage in a week of dryland training at the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid.
"Our team leaves later this week for the Sochi World Cup / Test event on the 23rd and 24th with a high degree of confidence, knowing that a good performance there will help launch them into the off-season in advance of next year’s Winter Olympic Games," concluded Rossi.
As the clock is now ticking toward the 2014 Winter Games, more American television sets are finding the sport of luge. For the first time in the sport’s history, there was live U.S. coverage in recent weeks on the NBC Sports Network and Universal Sports, starting with the 2013 World Championships and continuing with the Lake Placid World Cup.
The promos for the Lake Placid event began earlier in the week when The Weather Channel broadcast last Tuesday morning from 5:30 - 11 AM from the competition venue at Mount Van Hoevenberg. Also, the Dan Patrick Show made numerous mentions of the races on the NBC family of networks.