West unbeatable in winning 9th Norton USA Luge Start Championship

by Sandy Caligiore

LAKE PLACID, N.Y. – Two-time Olympian Tucker West upped his record number of men’s start titles to nine with his victory in the annual Norton USA Luge Start Championships, establishing him once again as the fastest starter on the national team, and among the best on the World Cup circuit.

The victory brought the three-time World Cup race winner to within one of team record-holder Ashley (Hayden) Walden, who grabbed 10 straight championships.

The event was held on the team’s refrigerated start ramps in Lake Placid. The facility opened 18 months ago after extensive renovation and lengthening of the iced ramps.

Pyeongchang Olympian Emily Sweeney captured the women’s championship, while the team of Zack DiGregorio and Sean Hollander pulled away from the field to win the doubles crown.

The yearly competition dates back nearly 30 years as a means of gauging athlete off-season progress in the all-important start technique. Luge races begin from handles in a static start at the top of the course.

The 2021 edition saw luge athletes pulling a total of three times from two of the four start locations. Two attempts were traditional luge starts, while the third pull incorporated the reaction start used in the team relay.

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West, of Ridgefield, Conn., totaled 8.03 seconds for his three runs, besting Jonny Gustafson, of Massena, N.Y. The runner-up finished 0.28 from the winner.

“This year felt special to me,” admitted West. “We’re coming off a tough year last year with COVID and all the lockdowns. It was weird training last year. This year felt like the first good year back. I was able to get back into the (US Olympic and Paralympic) Training Center and train with the team.

“The whole summer went very well for me. I was relatively injury free and the equipment worked out well, so I was happy with how things progressed through the summer, and was even happier to see it pay off in the start championships.”

Hollander, who also entered the singles division, was third, 0.31 behind West. DiGregorio was fourth; Hunter Harris of East Fairfield, Vt. fifth; Matt Greiner, of Park City, Utah, was sixth.

Sweeney, the 2019 World Championship bronze medalist, edged out Summer Britcher by 0.05 over the three attempts for her first start crown. Sweeney, of Lake Placid, is eyeing her second Olympic berth this winter. She clocked 8.67 seconds, while Britcher, of Glen Rock, Pa., was timed in 8.72.

“There were a lot of close competitors so it kept things exciting,” stated Sweeney. “It was fun to have a day where we all show up and see how all of our summer training has gone.

“I feel really good. I feel very stable and have a great base (of training) going into the season. I’m constantly reminding myself that the goal is in February. It’s great to show up today and do really well, but I can only try to build on that as we move into the season.”

Britcher, with five World Cup victories over her career to lead all U.S. singles sliders, seeks her third Olympic team nomination. Chevonne Forgan, of Chelmsford, Mass., took third in 8.95. Ashley Farquharson, of Park City, Utah, placed fourth.

DiGregorio, from Medway, Mass. and Hollander, of Lake Placid, took the doubles race in 8.59. Harris teamed with Duncan Segger of Lake Placid for a second- place result in 8.88. Harris filled in for Dana Kellogg of Chesterfield, Mass., who is out of action as he recovers from a shoulder injury. Forgan teamed with Sophie Kirkby, of Ray Brook, N.Y. to finish third in 9:32.

“The summer’s been really good with the starts. It came together on the right day,” said DiGregorio.

“A lot of building strength and getting the technique down as a team,” added Hollander.

Also missing were 2018 Olympic silver medalist Chris Mazdzer of Salt Lake City, his doubles partner and double Olympian Jayson Terdiman of Berwick, Pa. Both were healthy scratches from the start championship lineup. Park City’s Brittney Arndt sat out with a knee injury.

The Norton competition always held in the fall months, begins the countdown to the team’s return to outdoor ice and the crucial training camps that enable the athletes to build a deep run count prior to the start of the Eberspacher World Cup tour.

USA Luge will depart later this month for camps on the Olympic tracks in Sochi and Lillehammer. They will open the Lake Placid sliding season with a camp from Oct. 13-17 at Mount Van Hoevenberg, followed by a week-long trip to Park City, Utah.

The first three weeks of November will be spent at the Yanqing Sliding Center in Beijing where racers and coaches will finally get a first-hand look at February’s Olympic course. The World Cup season will begin there Nov. 20-21.

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