USA Luge places 3 men in top 25 as Oberhof World Cup opens
by Sandy Caligiore
Chris Mazdzer, Tucker West and Jonny Gustafson in action in Oberhof, Germany on January 15, 2022. Photos: FIL / Mareks Galinovskis
OBERHOF, Germany – In an Eberspacher World Cup men’s luge race on Saturday, the United States was led by Tucker West, who finished 19th on the luge-centric track in the winter sports mecca of Oberhof. Teammates Chris Mazdzer, the 2018 Pyeongchang silver medalist, was 21st with Jonny Gustafson 24th.
In what could be a harbinger of the Olympic team relay, Mazdzer, of Salt Lake City, had the fastest reaction time by 0.1 of a second in Friday’s sprint, non-World Cup test race. In a field of 40 sleds, Gustafson, of Massena, N.Y., had the fifth quickest reaction, while West, of Ridgefield, Conn., was seventh fastest from the gate.
The experimentation offered a peak into a format change for next season to the Sprint Cup. If approved, the reaction would be calculated into the total run time.
All three athletes will be nominated to the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee for inclusion in the 2022 Beijing Winter Games, now less than three weeks away. USOPC approval is required for all American athletes.
Men’s singles training in Beijing commences Feb. 1, with the four heats slated for Feb. 5-6. The four women’s singles heats take place Feb. 7-8.
In the doubles race that ensued on Saturday, USA Luge was absent as Dana Kellogg and Duncan Segger returned to Lake Placid to resume training after coming close to qualifying for Beijing, but losing the lone doubles spot to Zack DiGregorio of Medway, Mass. and Sean Hollander of Lake Placid in a special race-off. The Mazdzer/Jayson Terdiman tandem crashed in last week’s Nations Cup qualifier, ending their Olympic hopes together.
Only four nations – Germany, Austria, Latvia and Russia – qualified two doubles sleds. A closer inspection reveals that only those four nations had a home race this season. In fact, Russia had two. Home races area an advantage all four enjoyed and goes a long way to maximizing a team’s Olympic quota. In fact, Germany had three home events.
There have been no North American races in two years.
DiGregorio/Hollander, prospective Olympic rookies, are in Park City, Utah for two weeks of concentrated training on one of Terdiman’s doubles sleds. The 2014 and 2018 Olympian from Berwick, Pa. immediately offered the youngsters his equipment in a selfless gesture to bolster the team’s chances at the Yanqing National Sliding Center. The Olympic doubles race is Feb. 9, followed by the team relay Feb. 10 that concludes the luge competitions in Beijing.
DiGregorio and Hollander are sliding on the 2002 Olympic track that saw the Americans win two Olympic doubles medals at the Utah Olympic Park. The pair are working onsite with head coach Robert Fegg, Terdiman, and singles slider Brittney Arndt, of Park City, who is training and assisting after falling short of Olympic qualification.
The German singles love Oberhof and why not. With temperatures hovering in the high 20s and low 30s, local hero Johannes Ludwig, the most dominant man on the World Cup tour this season, grabbed his fifth gold medal of the winter, helped by a track record 42.515 seconds in the final heat.
The record Ludwig broke was the one he set about 90 minutes earlier. He totaled 1 minute, 25.069 seconds for the two legs. The result was good enough to clinch the overall World Cup title one week prior to the season’s end as he mathematically cannot be caught.
The 2018 Olympic gold (team relay) and bronze (singles) medal winner turned back teammate Max Langenhan and triple Olympic gold medalist Felix Loch, in that order, by a healthy 0.3 of a second on the short (1,100 meters), but technically interesting track in Thuringia.
"Of course, the importance of the overall World Cup is very, very high," said the 35-year-old Ludwig. "I never had the title in my career. You can already say that I'm getting better and better the older I get."
Langenhan is an Olympic newcomer, while Loch won his three gold medals in 2010 (singles) and 2014 (singles and team relay). The L-train will represent Germany in Beijing.
Austria went 4-5-6-7. Brothers Nico and David Gleirscher of Austria were fourth and seventh, respectively. Wolfgang Kindl, who has rekindled his sliding this season, was fifth. He is the lead slider among the three that his team will select. Jonas Mueller took sixth.
Roman Repilov and Semen Pavlichenko remain the top Russians. On Saturday, the past World Champions placed eighth and 11th, respectively.
Latvian Kristers Aparjods, a winner of his first two career races this season, was ninth.
Italy’s Dominik Fischnaller, fourth in the 2018 Olympics, was 12th as he, uncharacteristically, never got his runs on track from the top. Fischnaller lost time early in both legs of the race.
After 12 of 13 competitions, the chase now is for second place. Ludwig’s current World Cup point total at 837 makes him unreachable. Kindl is next at 691, Loch 631 and Aparjods with 606. The season finale will be held next weekend in St. Moritz.
The German doubles like this place, too. At their home course, Toni Eggert and Sascha Benecken rode track records in each heat – the better was the second run time of 41.320 - and took their 50th victory. The 100 gold medal points enabled them to cut into the overall World Cup advantage still held by the Latvian Sics brothers.
"50 - that's a house number. It makes us insanely proud," said front man Eggert. “Nice that it worked out in our living room."
It also worked out in the living room of their fans as that was the only way they could see the achievement as no spectators are allowed at the track.
Eggert/Benecken clocked a total time of 1:22.651, racing away from teammates Tobias Wendl and Tobias Arlt by 0.3 of a second. Italy’s Emanuel Rieder and Simon Kainzwaldner claimed the bronze medal, 0.45 of a second from the top. It was their second podium result of the year, helped by a first run start record that saw them paddling to turn four.
Defending World Cup champions Thomas Steu and Lorenz Koeller were fourth after taking last week to rest. Steu broke his foot in November and is ensuring complete recovery for Beijing.
Andris and Juris Sics, on this track, did quite well to muster fifth place. The course is short and the start does not play into their strength, but they gained significant time moving down the run, a strength, coupled with their experience, that will help them considerably on Yanqing’s long and unique course. The combination of the start and the run’s brevity may have pre-disposed this result, but expect that to change in a few weeks. The medal winners had the fastest starts.
Italy also claimed sixth and seventh places. Unfortunately, they are only getting one Olympic sled next month.
Team Sics is on top of the rankings, with 828 points, going into the final. Eggert/Benecken have 791, with Wendl/Arlt on 711. Steu and Koeller have missed five of 11 events but are still sixth overall.
"We have no other chance than to attack brutally once again in St. Moritz," said Benecken. “If you look at the World Cup standings, it will be a super exciting final. We would have dreamed before the season that it could be so exciting at the end. There are only two goals: to get the big ball and stay healthy."
WOMEN’S SINGLES AND TEAM RELAY
Racing in Oberhof will end on Sunday with women’s singles followed by the team relay. USA Luge will have one athlete in action. Ashley Farquharson of Park City is the lone woman entered as Emily Sweeney of Lake Placid has been resting her neck this week. She will return to the ice next week in St. Moritz. Also, Summer Britcher of Glen Rock, Pa. revealed a broken middle finger via Instagram. She incurred the injury in last weekend’s crash in Sigulda. Britcher took one run in Oberhof and entered the Nations Cup without the proper start capability. She said there will be no more starts for her until Beijing.
The three U.S. women will be nominated to the USOPC, pending their approval, for the Olympic Winter Games.
Sunday’s competitions will be live streamed on Olympics.com beginning at 4:30 AM EST.
WORLD CUP WOMEN’S DOUBLES IN BLUDENZ, AUSTRIA
In a women’s World Cup doubles field of 16 sleds, Americans Chevonne Forgan and Sophie Kirkby took a bronze medal, followed in fourth place by Maya Chan and Reannyn Weiler on the new course in Bludenz, Austria.
As this is the final stop on the circuit, Chan/Weiler finished fourth overall after six races, highlighted by three bronze medals. Forgan/Kirkby, who were merely one point behind their teammates in the overall rank, had two bronze medals on the year. In addition, Chan and Weiler placed second overall in Junior Women's Doubles.
German sleds raced away with first and second places overall.
The entire women’s doubles field will be interested observers as the International Luge Federation campaigns the IOC in an effort to include this discipline in Milan/Cortina 2026.
Aidan Mueller’s youth A victory in Bludenz led a dominant USA Luge effort on Saturday. Mueller was backed up by Ansel Haugsjaa third, Frank Ike fourth and Marcus Mueller, no relation, fifth.
The Junior World Championships will end the season Jan. 29-31 in Winterberg, Germany. Women’s doubles will end this event on the final day.