USA Luge fourth in team relay

IGLS, Austria — The opening weekend of the Olympic season in World Cup luge saw the United States leave the Innsbruck region with a fourth place effort in the team relay.

The race was shaping up as a close encounter among five teams, until Germany’s after-burners, also known as Toni Eggert and Sascha Benecken, kicked in and ran away from the field.

USA Luge, with Erin Hamlin celebrating her 31st birthday, Tucker West and the doubles team of Justin Krewson and Andrew Sherk, were among four nations separated by a remarkably close 0.07 of a second.

The Americans found themselves at the mercy of Eggert and Benecken, along with singles teammates Natalie Geisenberger, Saturday’s winner, and Felix Loch, who took a bronze medal a few hours earlier.

Comparing times, Hamlin, the 2014 Olympic bronze medal winner from Remsen who won a team record three World Championship medals here last January, was merely 0.004 behind Geisenberger. The U.S. singles star then turned it over to West, of Ridgefield, Connecticut. His reaction to the opening of the gate led the field. This, coupled with a stellar run, pushed his team 0.13 of a second ahead of Germany.

Eggert and Benecken, 2017 world champions on this two-time Olympic track, then showed why they currently are the game in doubles, overtaking all four nations and winning by a convincing 0.358 of a second.

The Germans, defending Olympic champions in this discipline, have won a staggering 32 of the 43 World Cups since the team relay debuted in 2010. They clocked an aggregate time of 2 minutes, 10.667 seconds.

Canada was next in 2:11.025, followed by Russia third in 2:11.044 and the U.S. fourth in 2:11.080.

The USA’s top three sliders in Sunday’s men’s singles, West, Chris Mazdzer and Jonny Gustafson, got their runs underway in quicker fashion than the three medal winners. It was testament to the team’s revamped start training program that was instituted two summers ago.

Sunday’s singles race saw the United States achieve a team first – two different athletes with the fastest start times of their respective heats. The Americans, however, could not sustain the momentum through the intricacies of the track.

West had the fifth and best start times in each leg, respectively, but wound up 16th overall, nearly 0.5 of a second behind winner and 2015 World Champion Semen Pavlichenko of Russia. Mazdzer, the two-time Olympian from Saranac Lake, started seventh and fifth fastest, but landed in 20th place, 0.52 behind Pavlichenko.

Gustafson, of Massena, bidding for one of three men’s singles Olympic berths to be decided over the first five races, placed 10th in the opening heat and was on pace for a career best finish. Gustafson was helped by the fastest getaway time of the run. But the second-year World Cup racer fell off the pace in the final heat, finishing 28th.

Taylor Morris, of South Jordan, Utah, was 30th, while John Fennell, of Calgary, a dual citizen, did not qualify in Friday’s Nations Cup event.

Ironically, Pavlichenko was an unlikely winner as neither of his runs were the fastest. In fact, the final results had nothing in common with the midway standings.

At the intermission, the leaderboard showed Italy’s Dominik Fischnaller, the Igls winner two years ago and the Pyeongchang pre-Olympic World Cup gold medalist last February, at the top. Fischnaller was followed by Germans Andi Langenhan and Nations Cup qualifier Julien von Schleinitz.

Pavlichenko was fifth at the break, posted the second fastest final heat, and emerged from the chaos with the gold medal in 1:41.771.

Austrian dynamo Wolfgang Kindl, the world champion in Igls last winter, was sixth at the intermission, seventh best in the final run, and an unlikely silver medalist in 1:41.827.

Loch, the 2010 and 2014 Olympic champion, was seventh after one leg, fifth ranked for the second heat and in third place overall in 1:41.841.

To achieve these results, help was on the way in the final attempt from von Schleinitz, who dropped from third to 22nd; Langenhan falling from second to ninth; and lastly Fischnaller, who stumbled from the lead down to sixth place.

Among other notables, defending World Cup champion Roman Repilov of Russia staged a major rally just to finish 13th.

The World Cup opener marked the first of five consecutive weekends of racing. The finale of that stretch will occur in Lake Placid on Dec. 15-16. In Igls, only Krewson, of Eastport, N.Y., and Sherk, of Fort Washington, Pa., made a small move toward Olympic nomination with their 13th place doubles result on Saturday.

The process will continue next weekend in Winterberg, Germany. Singles, doubles and sprint races are on the docket. The sprint and team relay results do not count toward Olympic nomination.

USA Luge will announce its 10 Pyeongchang nominees on the evening of Dec. 16 at 6 PM in the Conference Center in Lake Placid.

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