IGLS, Austria - The 2010-2011 edition of the United States Luge Team, with five Vancouver Olympians on the ice and a sixth heading the coaching staff, arrived Monday at this tony winter retreat ready to begin the new World Cup luge season.
Igls, just a few minutes outside 1964 and 1976 Winter Olympic host Innsbruck, is the site of the first of nine World Cup luge events. In addition to its combined luge, bobsled and skeleton track, the hills above the track were the site of Franz Klammer's near-calamitous downhill race to 1976 Olympic glory as his fellow countrymen cheered deliriously.
The site will also host competitions in the 2012 Youth Olympic Winter Games.
The World Cup luge slate includes four competitions in November and December prior to the Christmas holidays. The remaining five, and the World Championships in Italy, are set for January and February.
The last major international races for the U.S. occurred at Whistler last February, where the team's best Olympic effort came from the doubles sled of Christian Niccum and Dan Joye, who took sixth place. Niccum, the front driver, returns, but has Jayson Terdiman manning the back of the sled.
With a gaggle of retirements in the doubles field, this discipline appears to be wide open for podium finishes throughout the winter.
"As people have retired I've gotten older," quipped Niccum, who had back surgery in the off-season. "Older hopefully means more experienced. I have more experience against younger sleds and have learned from the mistakes of the past."
Added Terdiman, "We have bonded well after Christian got his back work in July and our training has been solid. We trust each other on the sled."
Tony Benshoof was the top singles performer at Whistler, finishing eighth. Benshoof, however, is still home attending to his ailing mother and has taken leave from the national team.
Whistler teammate Chris Mazdzer of Saranac Lake secured his best international result with a 13th place at the Winter Olympics and has gotten stronger during the off-season.
"When I was at the Olympics, I realized that you are not there to compete. You are there to win," Mazdzer said. "I was just happy to be there, but now I want to take these next four years to be even better. You think about that and it would keep anyone motivated."
Germany remains the team to beat, led by 2010 Olympic champion Felix Loch and silver medalist David Moeller.
Individually, Armin Zoeggeler of Italy is on a mission: at 49 World Cup race victories, just one more will tie all-time leader Markus Prock of Austria. The Italian has nine overall tour titles in a career that also includes five world championships and five Olympic medals.
From the women's standpoint, Erin Hamlin of Remsen, a 2006 and 2010 Olympian and 2009 World Champion, has been a consistent singles performer throughout the preseason in Lake Placid and Cesana, Italy.
"We've only been here (Europe) about a week or so and it's hard to tell where I stack up," Hamlin said. "But things feel really good after training in Lake Placid. I'm really excited to get racing and pick up the pace. It's hard to say how the races will go, but I'm glad to be here."
Hamlin's 2010 Olympic teammate, Julia Clukey, will attempt to convert one of the world's fastest starts into high finishes.
Hamlin, Clukey and the rest of the field will have their hands full trying to stop the German juggernaut which has not lost a World Cup race since 1997. February's Olympic gold medal winner, Tatyana Huefner, and bronze medalist, Natalie Geissenberger, will benefit from having four of the nine races on German tracks.
The U.S. competitors will be guided by an entirely new coaching staff, with a collective nine Winter Olympics on their resumes.
Mark Grimmette of Lake Placid, a five-time Olympian with silver and bronze medals and the title of 2010 U.S. flagbearer in Vancouver, retired in the spring and is the team's new Sport Program Director.
Duncan Kennedy, a veteran of three Olympic teams and a former junior team coach from Lake Placid, moves to World Cup assistant as does 1992 Olympian Bill Tavares, also of Lake Placid. Tavares returns to his roots after coaching the U.S. women's bobsled team.
Beginning Oct. 15, the Americans spent four weeks on ice at their Lake Placid home track before going to Cesana for five days of training last week on the World Championship course. There were three days of training in Igls before the World Cup began earlier today.
The women and doubles races are set for today, with men and team relay events on tap for Sunday. The eyes of the International Olympic Committee will be on the relays this season as the IOC is contemplating the addition of the event to the 2014 Winter Olympic program in Sochi, Russia.
Thereafter, the U.S. sliders will depart Igls for Winterberg, Germany and the second World Cup weekend.
In between, the team will collaborate with the USO and visit American military families and schools at the Kaiserslautern Military Command in Ramstein, Germany on Nov. 29.