Luge season starts with a bang

Erin Hamlin and Chris Mazdzer pose for a photo in March at the USA Luge headquarters in Lake Placid.
(Enterprise photo — Lou Reuter)

Erin Hamlin and Chris Mazdzer pose for a photo in March at the USA Luge headquarters in Lake Placid. (Enterprise photo — Lou Reuter)

IGLS, Austria – The most important World Cup luge season in any quadrennium begins this weekend outside Innsbruck, the 1964 and 1976 Winter Olympic site. It’s significant for the simple reason that the first five races prior to the holiday break will determine the final field of Olympic luge racers, as the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympic Winter Games begin in less than three months.

The two-time Olympic track in Igls, one of the tour’s shorter layouts, traditionally begins the year. World Cup racing starts today with women’s racing and the doubles event. The weekend continues Sunday with men’s singles and the team relay.

From this weekend through Dec. 14-16 when the luge World Cup tour stops in Lake Placid, there will be drama, tension and surprises, along with tears of joy and disappointment. Such is the nature of qualification for the Olympic Winter Games.

  Every country can enter three men and three women in singles, and two doubles teams in South Korea. This is in contrast to the World Cup quota of five men, four women and three doubles teams. Each nation’s Olympic team relay foursome will come from their 10 athletes.

If last season was any indication, we should expect some unpredictability across several disciplines. After winning the overall men’s World Cup title five straight years, German Felix Loch was dislodged by Russia’s youthful two-time Junior World Champion Roman Repilov.

USA Luge national team members, from the left, Jonny Gustafson, Summer Britcher, Tucker West and Taylor Morris stand in front of their van at Mount Van Hoevenberg after getting in some spring sliding in March.  
(Enterprise photo — Lou Reuter)

USA Luge national team members, from the left, Jonny Gustafson, Summer Britcher, Tucker West and Taylor Morris stand in front of their van at Mount Van Hoevenberg after getting in some spring sliding in March. (Enterprise photo — Lou Reuter)

Wolfgang Kindl of Austria has become a model of consistency the past four years and captured the World Championship last January on the Igls track. The diminutive Kindl enters the season nursing a neck ailment.

  Americans Tucker West and Chris Mazdzer have solidified themselves as a 1-2 threat. West was a deceptive seventh in last year’s tour standings despite two wins and a pair of fourth places. Had it not been for a disqualification in the season opener that cost him a bundle of World Cup points in that race and the ensuing sprint event, West would have placed higher.

Two seasons ago, Mazdzer elevated himself into the upper bracket of competitors when he became just the second U.S. man to ever place in the top three of the final World Cup standings. He amassed two gold, two silver and one bronze medal in the process.

  Six different women raced their way to the winner’s circle last season, led by Germany’s Natalie Geisenberger who took five victories and the overall title. Tatyana Ivanova of Russia and American Olympic medal winner Erin Hamlin picked up two victories each en route to third and fourth place World Cup finishes, respectively.

If there is a status quo in any division, it would be doubles. German teams have separated themselves over the years to the point where they have won 52 of the last 54 World Cup races. The most recent damage has been done by Olympic champions Tobias Wendl and Tobias Arlt, and teammates and 2017 World Champions Toni Eggert and Sascha Benecken. Christian Oberstolz and Patrick Gruber of Italy scored the other two victories.

  The two German teams were first and second in the 2016-2017 standings, followed by Matt Mortensen and Jayson Terdiman of the U.S. In just their third year together, Mortensen and Terdiman used a World Cup silver medal on the final weekend of the season to claim third place, preventing a sweep by Germany. It was the first time in 14 years that an American doubles sled finished in the top three overall.

  The team relay statistics also favor Germany, which has won 31 of the 42 events held since the event debuted in the 2010-2011 World Cup campaign.

USA Luge enters the season opener with 15 athletes. Ten will be nominated to the 2018 Olympic team. Here’s a summary of each.

MEN

West, of Ridgefield, Connecticut, is a 2014 Olympian, Union College student and winner of two World Cup races last season and three in his young career. West won both Norton seeding races in October. In 2014, he was the youngster male singles athlete to qualify for the Games.

Mazdzer, of Saranac Lake, is a veteran slider seeking his third Olympic berth. He finished third in the overall World Cup two seasons ago, just the second American man to achieve top three status.

Taylor Morris of South Jordan, Utah, who contended for an Olympic berth prior to Sochi, has spent most of the past two off-seasons training in Lake Placid, and is among the best at gaining time as he moves down the track.

Rising junior national team member Jonny Gustafson, of Massena, is looking to improve his driving and sliding tactics to match a strong start. This is his second season racing on the World Cup tour.

John Fennell came to the U.S. team via Canada after the 2015-2016 season. Fennell, of Calgary, has dual citizenship: he was born in Denver to Canadian parents. Fennell has been training with USA Luge since the spring of 2016. In 2014, he competed for Canada in Sochi.

WOMEN

  The women’s team is led by Erin Hamlin, of Remsen. The 2014 Sochi Olympic bronze medalist and 2009 World Champion added more international hardware last winter, including three more World Championship medals (gold and two silver) and two World Cup victories in Park City. Her World Championship performance set a team record.

The improving Summer Britcher, a 2014 Olympian from Glen Rock, Pennsylvania, will try to channel her stellar 2015-2016 World Cup campaign that saw her finish fifth overall on the strength of three World Cup wins. That total tied Germany’s Tatjana Huefner for the tour lead. Last year’s shoulder issue is a non-factor as Britcher enters the Olympic season stronger.

Emily Sweeney, of Suffield, Connecticut, was on the Lake Placid World Cup podium in December 2015, the historic day that saw USA Luge sweep the medals (with Hamlin and Britcher) for the first time in singles annals. She has a total of three World Cup silver medals to date, and is looking for her first Olympic berth after being in the mix for 2010 and 2014.

Raychel Germaine, of Roswell, Georgia, rounds out the USA quartet. Germaine survived the fall Norton seeding races against Brittney Arndt of Park City, Utah, to forge her spot on the World Cup squad.

DOUBLES

  The top doubles team of Mortensen, of Huntington Station, and Terdiman, of Berwick, Pennsylvania, fifth in the overall World Cup standings two years ago, marched their way to a team best third place last season. Now entering just their fourth season together, the duo has made start improvement a priority each off-season. Mortensen and Terdiman teamed up immediately after the Sochi Winter Games, having raced in Russia with different partners. They swept the two Norton seeding races this fall.

Two other doubles teams will be in the field, including Jake Hyrns with Anthony Espinoza and Justin Krewson, the front driver for Andrew Sherk. Krewson and Sherk marked their World Cup debut season by anchoring a USA Luge World Cup gold medal in the Lake Placid team relay in December 2015. Hyrns and Espinoza scored their first two World Cup top 10s in closing out the 2016-2017 schedule, and hope to carry that momentum in the first half of this season.

The 2017-2018 World Cup luge tour will feature five stops in November and December on consecutive weekends. The fifth weekend will take place in Lake Placid December 15-16, at which time the 10 Olympic nominees will be officially unveiled. That celebratory event will occur at the Conference Center in Lake Placid at 6 p.m. Dec. 16.

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