LAKE PLACID - An hour after winning her first Norton U.S. National Luge Championship on Sunday morning at Mount Van Hoevenberg, Kate Hansen still was not sure what she had done.
"I pulled out some really great runs that I didn't know I had in me," said Hansen, the 2008 Junior World Champion from La Canada, Calif. Her three individual heats were unmatched by Julia Clukey, who finished second, and Erin Hamlin, who placed third.
Chris Mazdzer, who tied Tucker West to the thousandth of a second a year ago, took the title solo over West this time in the men's singles competition, while Jake Hyrns and Andrew Sherk, who lost the national doubles crown last fall on a sled disqualification, made amends and slid to their first championship.
From left, Julia Clukey, Kate Hansen and Erin Hamlin pose with their medals following Sunday’s Norton U.S. National Luge Championship at Mount Van Hoevenberg in Lake Placid. Hansen took gold, Clukey won silver and Erin Hamlin earned bronze.
(Photo — Roy Bombard)
Norton luge national champion Chris Mazdzer of Saranac Lake stands between Tucker West, left, and Taylor Morris after winning Sunday’s event.
(Photo — Roy Bombard)
The three national championship sleds also won the seeding race that was held concurrently on a warm, sunny autumn day on Mount Van Hoevenberg.
"I'm pretty emotional about it. It's a big deal," said Hansen, who was nearly two-tenths of a second clear of the field. "I haven't won anything in a long time. This was a long time coming."
Hansen's first two heats - 45.156 and 44.980 seconds - totaled 1 minute, 30.136 seconds to crown herself a national champion. A third heat, which was part of a seeding race, was also tops. Hansen took her two better of the three runs to also claim victory in the seeding event.
With only one more seeding race Oct. 20 in Park City, Utah these results place Hansen in an advantageous position to make the United States fall World Cup team.
"The sled was really running and I was ready to do it," Hansen said. "I wasn't timid or scared. I just went for it."
Over the summer, Kate worked on the food and beverage cart service at the Whiteface Club Golf Course, with periodic stints in the Cafe on the Green. Her colleagues were very happy to hear about her victory Sunday.
"Kate was able to manage a rigorous training schedule and a job at the same time and was a great ambassador for the club," said Mark Sperling, General Manager of the Whiteface Club Companies. "We congratulate Kate on her success in the nationals and her continued success into the fall World Cup season. We hope to see her in Sochi this winter. We also hope she continues her training in Lake Placid next year and returns to the Whiteface Club."
Clukey, a 2010 Olympian and the top rated American on last year's World Cup tour in sixth place overall, had her career best on this track last February with a silver medal. The luge athlete with one of the quickest starts on the international circuit is pre-qualified for the November and December World Cup traveling squad.
"I struggled all week with the middle of the track," particularly exiting curve 10 she stated after posting a two-run time of 1:30.326. "I was able to maintain composure and speed down the track."
Clukey also claimed her fastest start times in Lake Placid in several years.
"I was already qualified for the World Cup team and could play around with some things. I didn't have that stress," Clukey said. "Everything is building to the World Cup season and I feel really good."
Hamlin, a two-time Olympian and 2009 world champion, took treatment for a wrist issue and did not use a normal start technique in training until later in the week. The five-time national champion clocked 1:30.386.
Mazdzer's two runs topped the men's field to not only claim the Norton championship, but the seeding race, too. In both runs the 2010 Olympian from Saranac Lake surrendered approximately .06 of a second at the start of each heat to West, before overtaking the youngster down the track.
Mazdzer was timed in 53.266 and 53.232 for an aggregate clocking of 1:46.498. He did not take a third heat and let the first two attempts stand as his runs for the seeding race. Like Clukey and Hamlin, Mazdzer was also pre-qualified for the World Cup team.
"I kind of viewed myself as the underdog today," Mazdzer told the Associated Press. "I like to put myself in the mentality where I'm the underdog and I like to catch everyone else. I think that really carried over to today."
When asked later in the day, he added, "I try for perfection each time. Today I left a little on the hill, but I fixed the mistakes that I made. In the second run out of curve seven, I came down abruptly and nearly popped my face shield. I caught it with my chin."
West, from Ridgefield, Conn., has been a talent on the rise for the past few seasons. The 18-year-old was part of the gold-medal winning relay team at the 2012 Youth Olympic Games, shared this title last fall and has won the USA Luge Start Championships three consecutive years.
His second place effort was timed in 1:46.612, while Taylor Morris, of South Jordan, Utah, collected the bronze medal in 1:46.922.
"This will give me confidence going into the season," West said. "Hopefully, it'll translate into my other races."
West's explosiveness off the handles is an asset he hopes to exploit further.
"I have an advantage right off the bat that some others don't have," he said. "Now I have to keep that lead which is sometimes tough, but it gives me confidence going into the run."
While his start talent may be his own, West is also benefitting from the shared sled technology the Americans are getting from Dow and Clarkson University, in tandem with steels formulated by Norton.
"I'm now running the Dow kufens (fiberglass runners) which they have so graciously made for us," West said. "They seem to be running really fast. I'm excited to see how they go on the World Cup circuit. They take up most of the chatter and make the track flow better."
Hyrns and Sherk did not dominate both heats in doubles, but their tenth of a second lead over Matt Mortensen and Preston Griffall in the first leg held up for the victory.
A year ago Hyrns, of Muskegon, Mich. and Sherk, of Fort Washington, Pa., seemingly had the gold medal pocketed. But their pockets got picked when officials detected a sled violation leading to a disqualification.
"I thought about it yesterday," Hyrns said Sunday. "I called Bill (Tavares, assistant coach) up and asked him to come over and make sure the steels were good. We had them tested here and were told it was OK."
Now with no equipment concerns, the duo turned an 11-hundredth of a second deficit at the start into a noteworthy advantage when Mortensen and Griffall lost time at the bottom of the three-quarters of a mile long doubles course.
That Mortensen and 2006 Olympian Griffall beat all comers in the final run could only close the gap. The winners had individual times of 45.076 and 45.069 for a cumulative 1:30.145.
"I always wanted to win a nationals race, but there's still a long career ahead of us, I hope," said Sherk, who has been hampered in recent weeks by a hand injury. "We need to put in a lot of work in the weight room and on the track. We have a lot of work to do on the starts. We were getting consistent, but then injuries over the summer put us back."
Mortensen and Griffall were .06 behind in 1:30.210. Christian Niccum and Jayson Terdiman registered the third place time of 1:30.493. In recent seasons, Niccum has had a second back operation and Achilles surgery. They only competed once last year, that coming in the World Cup final in Sochi.
The Oct. 20 seeding race - the final such event prior to the announcement of the fall World Cup group - will conclude the end of a week of training on the 2002 Olympic track in Park City, Utah. That contingent will depart Utah on Oct. 21 for continued training in Europe, followed by a week (Nov. 1-7) on the 2014 Olympic course in Sochi.
The World Cup season commences Nov. 16-17 in Lillehammer, Norway. There will be five World Cup meets prior to Christmas, concluding in Park City in mid-December. At that time the 10 members of the U.S. Olympic Luge Team (three men's singles, three women's singles and two doubles teams) will be confirmed.