KOENIGSSEE, Germany - Armin Zoeggeler of Italy is nicknamed "The Cannibal" for the way he eats up luge courses.
The feast continued Thursday in Bavaria as the two-time Olympic gold medalist used a track record time on the first run, and went on to capture his fourth consecutive World Cup event to close the 12 Nights of Christmas. It was his eighth career victory in Koenigssee. In stretching his overall lead to 125 points, Zoeggeler may have also closed the race for the World Cup title.
The United States rebounded with its best effort of the two days with a fourth place effort in the Team Relay. The group comprised of singles racers Erin Hamlin of Remsen and Chris Mazdzer of Saranac Lake, together with the doubles sled of Christian Niccum and Jayson Terdiman finished .3 of a second from the podium.
Armin Zoeggeler of Italy competes in singles luge at the 2010 Olympics in Whistler, British Columbia. He won the bronze medal in the event.
(AP File Photo — Charlie Krupa)
Gold, silver and bronze went to Germany, Austria and Italy, respectively.
Germany's entry was timed in two minutes, 45.971 seconds. Austria trailed by .2 of a second over the three total runs.
In the overall Team Relay standings, the U.S. finds itself in fifth place with 170 points, just 31 points out of a podium position with three races still to be contested. The final of those races will take place in Sigulda, Latvia in mid-February, and is expected to have IOC President Jacques Rogge in attendance.
The Team Relay is seeking Olympic status for the 2014 Winter Games. The IOC will render a decision in the spring.
"We missed a few training runs here," said U.S. Program Director and Head Coach Mark Grimmette. "But after the re-design of the bottom of the track, we were given more runs than usual for a World Cup as part of the re-certification process."
The team was originally supposed to depart on Dec. 26 for Germany, but was set back by the onslaught of snow in the East, forcing a delay and late arrival. This cost the Americans some precious additional training time.
"Our athletes made a few driving errors and everyone had a little trouble," he continued. "But with the construction work, the track was iced only two weeks ago. Usually the 'ice meister' here is right on top of things, and with time, they are able to make the track smoother. But they had no time, and as a result, some sections were more difficult from what we've seen in the past."
The 36-year-old Zoeggeler is building his case as the overwhelming choice at the upcoming World Championships, Jan. 29-30, on his home track in Cesana, Italy But, then again, what track isn't considered his home when someone has captured 53 career World Cups? He is also closing in on his 10th overall tour championship, which would tie him with retired Austrian Markus Prock.
Zoeggeler has never lost a race of significance on that 2006 Olympic course. He grabbed his second Olympic gold medal there nearly five years ago, and is undefeated in three World Cup events that Cesana has hosted. His domination was such that in capturing those three World Cups, Zoeggeler was fastest in five of the six total individual runs.
The winner clocked times of 50.494 and 50.765 seconds for a total time of 1:41.259 on the 1,310-meter long course. Russian Albert Demtchenko, a four-time winner in Koenigssee, was .35 of a second behind with 1:41.616. Reinhold Rainer, Zoeggeler's teammate, posted 1:41.668 for the bronze medal.
Germany placed four in the top 10, led by 2010 Olympic silver medal winner David Moeller in fourth. Vancouver Olympic champion Felix Loch was fifth on his home course. Ironically, German men have not won in Koenigssee in nine years.
Zoeggeler has 470 overall World Cup points, followed by Loch at 345 and Moeller with 324.
A closer look at Zoeggeler's recent performances indicates a luger now getting the job done differently. Earlier in his career, the man from the South Tyrol was a strong starter and used that to his advantage. In luge, however, as one ages, the elasticity in the athlete's back begins to tighten, particularly after pulling thousands of starts in training and racing. To compensate, Zoeggeler has relied on his considerable driving skills and sled technology to stay ahead of the field.
In this race, for instance, his respective start times only placed him 20th in both runs in the 32-man field. Yet he went unchallenged in both heats. And when he encounters a track like Koenigssee, with 17 curves that place a premium on ascertaining the correct line and then driving it, the set-up plays right into his hands.
Mazdzer, the top American, had competitive starts to the two runs, before slipping down to 23rd place in 1:43.593. Joe Mortensen, of Huntington Station, N.Y., did not complete the first heat, and was out of the running. Bengt Walden, of Lake Placid, N.Y., suffered a training crash earlier in the week and did not compete. Trent Matheson, of Bountiful, Utah, did not qualify via Tuesday's Nations Cup race.
Walden leads all Americans in the overall standings in 21st place and 89 points. Mazdzer is tied for 28th and has 57 points. Mortensen is 34th with 32 points. Trent Matheson, from Bountiful, Utah, is tied for 35th with 31 points.
The U.S. national team will make its way to Oberhof, Germany for the next World Cup race in the series on Jan. 15-16.
The team has ice time scheduled for Friday, but World Cup biathlon events are taking place simultaneously in that winter sports mecca. This forced Grimmette's team to find lodging out of the immediate area for several nights.
"It'll be difficult to get into Oberhof with the spectators," said Grimmette. "I'm hoping we'll have no problems and be able to get to our training session. But it'll be nice to have some extra runs there."