Gustafson opens with career-best

Chris Mazdzer, left, and Jayson Terdiman give a thumbs-up after finishing 10th in the season-opening World Cup luge race Saturday in Igls, Austria. It was their first doubles event together in 10 years. (Provided photo — FIL/Wolfgang Harder)

IGLS, Austria — USA Luge placed three in the top 10 in World Cup sprint racing as the opening weekend came to a close Sunday just outside Innsbruck, Austria.

Once again in warm conditions, 2014 and 2018 Olympian Summer Britcher led the effort finishing just off the podium in fourth place; Jonny Gustafson had his career-best World Cup result taking seventh, while the doubles team of Olympic silver medalist Chris Mazdzer and twice Olympian Jayson Terdiman were ninth just six weeks after re-forming their team from junior days.

The sprint format, restricted to the top finishers from the earlier discipline races, incorporates the “flying start” where athletes pull from their normal start height, but the timing does not begin for approximately 100 meters down the course.

Men’s singles started the final day in the Austrian Tyrol with Gustafson 15th. It marked his second-best World Cup race. Mazdzer was 17th, missing the top 15 for the sprint field by just 0.03 of a second, while two-time Olympian Tucker West took 19th.

Britcher is tied for fourth place overall after the first two events of the new World Cup campaign; Gustafson is 12th; Mazdzer and Terdiman are ninth in doubles.

World Cup action resumes this week at Whistler, British Columbia, with the team relay making its season debut on the 2010 Olympic track. It will also mark the return of Emily Sweeney, who has been training in Park City, Utah and Whistler in recent weeks.

Beyond Whistler, the tour travels to Calgary, Alberta and then Lake Placid Dec. 15-16 in consecutive weeks.

MEN’S SINGLES

Germany’s Johannes Ludwig, the Pyeongchang bronze medalist, raced to a gold medal Sunday morning in the traditional two-heat event. The unassuming veteran used his typical strong start and maintained that momentum down the Igls course in both runs. Ludwig won by nearly 0.1 of a second over Italian Dominik Fischnaller, claiming his second career gold medal.

The winner clocked 1 minute, 40.294 seconds. Bronze medalist Wolfgang Kindl made the move of the weekend on his home course. The man who was double World Champion on this track two seasons ago, drifted back to 18th place after his first attempt. But he lit up the field with the fastest run of the day, rocketing up to third place, 0.14 from Ludwig.

Kindl relegated 2018 Olympic champion and teammate David Gleirscher to fourth place, just 0.1 of a second from the podium.

First heat co-leader with Ludwig, Semen Pavlichenko of Russia, settled for fifth place, with double Olympic champion Felix Loch, of Germany, sixth.

The overall World Cup top three are Kindl, Ludwig and Fischnaller.

Gustafson, of Massena, had a combined 1:40.800 as he continues to learn the nuances of European tracks.

Mazdzer’s 17th place time was 1:40.829; West, in 19th, clocked 1:40.909.

SPRINT RACING

Britcher, of Glen Rock, Pennsylvania, continues to show that she is on par with the top racers in the world. She has a team-leading five World Cup singles wins to her credit.

In the sprint Sunday, she was fourth behind the German trio of Natalie Geisenberger who swept the two weekend races, Julia Taubitz and Dajana Eitberger. The American’s start speed was faster than the three ahead of her.

“I’m pretty happy with my result (Sunday),” Britcher said. “I was really gunning for that podium but with a mistake after the first curve, fourth place feels pretty good. I’ve been looking forward to this race for a long time now. It’s the first real race since the Olympics, and after crashing in the Igls Nations Cup last year, I’ll take a sixth and a fourth place finish with a smile. I’m looking forward to building on these results in the next few weeks.”

Geisenberger, Vancouver and Pyeongchang Olympic gold medalist, had a margin of victory of just 0.02 over Taubitz, who did not qualify for last year’s Olympic Games. Eitberger, the 2018 silver medalist, was 0.05 off the pace.

As was the case with Britcher, Gustafson was the lone USA Luge sprint competitor. He, too, had faster start speed than Kindl, Russian Alexandr Gorbatcevich and Loch who medaled in that order. Nevertheless. Gustafson made the opportunity count with his finest result to date.

“I’m incredibly excited about this first race,” remarked the Massena resident. “This was my best finish ever and my first time qualifying for a sprint cup. My sprint cup was obviously a best since it was my first one, however I did not expect to be in the top eight. I’ve been going into this season with a completely different and much better mentality than last season, and so far it’s paying off. I’m really looking forward to the rest of this year.”

The Mazdzer-Terdiman team gained time down the course in the doubles sprint, posting split times that were ranked 11th, 10th and ninth at the finish. They continue to get comfortable as a “new” team after last sliding together in their junior days 10 years ago. For Mazdzer, of Saranac Lake, riding higher on a sled that responds slower than a singles sled, is an adjustment. Terdiman’s adjustment is coming in the form of racing with his third partner since 2014.

“This weekend was a great start,” Mazdzer said. “There’s lots to do and learn from, but it was a good first step for doubles.”

“Going into this weekend with no expectations for Chris and myself, I leave Igls a very happy man,” Terdiman said. “Coming into this weekend with one-third of the preseason run-count compared to my international opponents — not to mention Chris’s absence from the doubles discipline for the last 10 years — we entered the World Cup opener at a serious disadvantage. To find ourselves finishing in the top 10 twice is awesome. It’s a great starting point for our newly rejoined partnership. We’re looking forward to getting back to North America and to some tracks we have even more familiarity with. This is going to be a long process, and it’s beginning at a much better point than either of us could have expected.”

Austrians Thomas Steu and Lorenz Koller completed the weekend sweep in taking the sprint gold medal. These were their first two career World Cup victories; they seem poised to continue the nation’s doubles legacy started over 20 years ago with the Schiegl cousins, then the Linger brothers and most recently the unrelated Penz-Fischler twosome.

Russians Vladislav Yuzhakov and new partner Iurii Prokhorov were second, followed by Germany’s two-time Olympic gold medalists Tobias Wendl and Tobias Arlt.

The next sprint races will occur in three weeks in Lake Placid. The Whistler World Cup races will begin Friday at 5 p.m. and Saturday at 12:40 p.m.

SATURDAY

IGLS, Austria — Two-time Olympian Summer Britcher led the USA Luge effort Saturday, finishing sixth in the season opening World Cup race.

“I wasn’t too happy with my runs overall,” remarked Britcher, who won a gold medal in Igls in the 2012 Youth Olympic Games and was the U23 World Champion in 2017. “I had a few errors that I should have been able to avoid. But it really just felt good to be racing again.”

Raychel Germaine was 16th, while Brittney Arndt placed 17th in her World Cup debut after graduating from the junior ranks. Emily Sweeney did not compete as she is preparing at Whistler, B.C. That’s where the 2018 Olympian will start her World Cup season next weekend.

Pyeongchang Olympic silver medalist Chris Mazdzer and Jayson Terdiman placed 10th in their return doubles race on the short Igls track. It was the duo’s first World Cup event together since 2008-2009 when they raced three times. Prior to that, they won a pair of medals at junior world championships in 2007 and 2008. 

The snow-sparse Tyrolean region offered spring-like conditions as temps climbed into the low 50s by the afternoon doubles event, but that wasn’t reflected in the ice surface.

“During training the ice was awesome,” Mazdzer said. “The (curve) profiles are very different than the last couple of years. This is definitely a different Igls than we’ve slid on in the past few years. I think you saw that today with a lot of really good teams struggling.”

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WOMEN

Despite not winning an individual heat, German Natalie Geisenberger came from behind to overtake teammate Julia Taubitz on her way to her 44th career victory. The 2014 and 2018 Olympic champion was second fastest in each leg, good enough to defeat Taubitz by 0.3 of a second. 

Geisenberger’s two runs totaled 1 minute, 19.619 seconds at the 1964 and 1976 Olympic venue.

Taubitz set an Igls track record in the first heat to grab the midway lead. Tatjana Huefner, a winner of all three Olympic medals, completed a team sweep in third place, clocking 1:19.885.

Geisenberger and Huefner were members of the Pyeongchang Olympic team as was Dajana Eitberger. But the latter athlete was one of many sleds throughout the entire day that had problems on the Igls course. Eitberger was 20th after one run, posted the best second heat time, and wound up eighth overall.

Britcher, who was third in last year’s World Cup chase, was sixth at the break and sixth at the end in 1:20.014 on a track that saw some curves built up with additional ice thus changing some of their profiles.

“With the FIL cutting our World Cup training runs from six down to five, it kind of added a new aspect of how you only have five runs now to get ready for the race and be at your best,” she said.  “I have a lot of experience here on this track, in general. Last year here, I actually crashed in the qualifying race so I didn’t get a chance to race. I haven’t really raced here since worlds two years ago, so it felt good to have a decent, fairly solid race.”

Germaine and Arndt were 16th and 17th, respectively. Both had to qualify in Friday’s Nations Cup race. Germaine, of Roswell, Ga., was timed in 1:20.195, while Arndt, of Park City, Utah, was timed in 1:20.219.

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DOUBLES

When we last saw the Austrian doubles sled of Thomas Steu and Lorenz Koller, they finished in fourth place, just outside the Olympic medals in South Korea. They watched as their compatriots, Peter Penz and Georg Fischler took the silver medal and then anchored a bronze medal in the Olympic team relay.

But Penz and Fischler have retired. They took their farewell trip down their home track prior to the race dressed in traditional Austrian garb of lederhosen, with a sled dredged up from the 70s, but minus a stein of bier.

Steu and Koller, now using parts of the sled of Penz and Fischler, then took over. They watched numerous sleds encounter major problems, including the top German teams of 2018 Olympic bronze medal winners Toni Eggert and Sascha Benecken, as well as double Olympic gold medalists Tobias Wendl and Tobias Arlt.

The Austrians dominated with the day’s two fastest heats, winning in 1:19.476 and snatching their first World Cup podium and victory.

Eggert, who suffered a fractured fibula in pre-season training in Oberhof, raced nevertheless. His sled collected the silver medal 0.18 of a second behind Steu and Koller. The bronze medal team of Russians Vladislav Yuzhakov and his new partner Iurii Prokhorov were timed in 1:19.758, also marking their first time on the World Cup podium.

Mazdzer, of Saranac Lake, N.Y., and Terdiman, of Berwick, Pa., are the lone USA Luge doubles tandem competing in the World Cup this winter and began training as a unit just six weeks ago. The top 10 result is commendable, given that brief amount of time, and the fact that Mazdzer is also training as a singles athlete after his crowning achievement in South Korea.

“This time around I’m really trying to focus on transitioning between both singles and doubles, and the (Igls) start is pretty tricky. So I’m really trying to focus on that,” Mazdzer said. “I’m just trying to have a lot of fun and really enjoy being in a new scenario, warming up in different places, different competitions. It’s definitely challenging. I take it really serious, but at the end of the day, I do really enjoy the sport.”

Their individual runs were eighth and 11th best, leading to an overall time of 1:20.148. Their final leg was delayed after an Italian sled crashed in curve 10, leading to a five-minute pause that forced Mazdzer and Terdiman to hit the reset button.

“It’s like icing the kicker in football,” said Terdiman, a 2014 and 2018 Olympian.