World Cup luge season ends in snowstorm with surprise womens winner & cancellation of team relay
by Sandy Caligiore
Above: Summer Britcher navigates through the snow in St.Moritz
ST. MORITZ, Switzerland – The final day of the Eberspacher World Cup luge season was marred by a heavy, all-day snowfall that produced a relatively unknown women’s winner and the cancellation of the last team relay of the season. Track workers could not keep up with the accumulating snow on the classic, long and uncovered Olympia run in St. Moritz.
As always, the weather is a matter of perspective. Nearby, skiers and boarders were regaling in the fresh powder above the village. At the sliding venue, however, not so much. The track conditions produced a women’s race that saw 12 of Friday’s qualifiers in the top 15. In this weather, a race can literally come down to the luck of the draw and how much snow was in the track before workers could sweep and shovel.
USA Luge’s Summer Britcher, a 2014 and 2018 Olympian, improved her second run by a whopping 0.6 of a second and elevated herself from 19th after one heat to 15th place at the end. Emily Sweeney, a member of the 2018 Olympic squad, stood 12th at half-time, only to drift back to an 18th place final result. The Park City, Utah duo of Ashley Farquharson and Brittney Arndt were 24th and 26th, respectively.
The team relay actually got underway with the American squad in the advantageous position of racing first after the track was prepared. Singles athletes Britcher and double Olympian Tucker West had good, consistent runs, but the start gate opened well before West reached the touch pad. The doubles team of 2018 Olympic silver medalist Chris Mazdzer and two-time Olympian Jayson Terdiman reacted to the opening of the gate and began their run at the exit of Sunny curve while West was still completing his leg of the race. Was it a mechanical failure of the relay system? This was the site of the 2020 Youth Olympic Games and included the team relay. Was the issue caused by the falling snow wreaking havoc with timing beams? Rhetorical questions at best, but after a lengthy delay, the decision was made to cancel the event.
Whatever the FIL decided was immaterial to Ukraine which could not get to the track - the road from their team hotel was closed by the snowstorm.
Latvia had an extraordinary weekend. After taking gold and silver medals in doubles on Saturday, 20-year-old U23 European Champion Elina leva Vitola, still making her way in World Cup circles, took advantage of her start position and raced to victory. The Latvian’s heat times were fifth and third fastest, respectively, but combined they were good enough for a gold medal in just her fourth World Cup start.
"That I had become European U23 champion in Sigulda was already unbelievable," said Vitola. "But I didn't expect this victory at all." Given the random nature of the event, such a win was not surprising. It was just a question of who.
Vitola, starting late in the final heat, slid into first place ahead of German Julia Taubitz and Taubitz’s “teammate” Natalie Maag of Switzerland. Germany and Switzerland train together. The final slider, Vitola’s fellow countrywoman Kendija Aparjode, illustrated the crap-shoot that such conditions create.
Aparjode, seeking her first career victory, held the lead in the opening leg. She began her final attempt is steady snow, yet held the lead as she departed the start in St. Moritz. But as Aparjode moved down the 7-tenths of a mile women’s run and approached the finish in Celerina, the storm picked up in intensity. The accumulation slowed Aparjode to where her run time was just 15th best, knocking her down to sixth place.
As Taubitz and Maag celebrated their medals, Vitola stood atop the podium staring around in shock until Natalie Geisenberger of Germany walked over and gave her a fist bump.
The 12th and final event of the World Cup campaign produced Geisenberger’s eighth overall championship after stepping away last year to start a family. In a season that produced her 50th and 51st race victories, Geisenberger plowed her way to 13th place Sunday, giving her enough World Cup points to defeat Taubitz, 995 to 976. In addition to her two gold medals in 2020-2021, Geisenberger, a four-time Olympic gold medal winner, added nine silvers.
"If someone had told me in the summer that I would win the overall World Cup as well as a silver medal at the World Championships, I would have taken it immediately,” reflected Geisenberger. "I can be very proud of how it all went. Not only athletically, but that I am also suited as a mother. However, without the support of my husband and parents, I wouldn't be able to manage anything like this."
Completing the German sweep at the top was Dajana Eitberger, who also did not compete last winter to deliver her first child. She was third in the final rankings at 698 points.
Once the mechanical issue occurred with the United States on the long course, the end of the race was in sight. Discussions took place and shortly thereafter, the plug was pulled.
"We had very heavy snowfall today,” stated Maria-Luise Rainer, FIL Sport Director. “The team relay is another story in terms of safety, and a false triggering of the start gate due to the snowfall is a safety risk we don't want to take."
Added Einars Fogelis, FIL President, “"It's a pity that the team relay final had to be cancelled. It would have been a great ending of this season."
The end came one race short of the scheduled six competitions. Germany took the overall World Cup title with 415 points, followed by the Russian Luge Federation with 375 and Latvia with 330. World Champion Austria was fourth.
When the pre-Olympic training week and World Cup races in Beijing were delayed until this fall, St. Moritz graciously stepped forward to host the final races of the year. It was the first World Cup visit here since 2012. A return to this winter playground of kings, queens and sheiks is slated for next year which will also include the European Championships prior to the Olympic Games. The FIL will hopefully have backup weather plans in place by then.
USA Luge is scheduled to return to Lake Placid on Monday and go into quarantine. The rest of the season will find the Americans training at Mount Van Hoevenberg and perhaps Park City in February and March before the U.S. tracks close for the season.
Sunday’s season finale is slated for broadcast coverage tonight at 10:30 ET on NBC Sports Network.