Sweeney takes fourth

ALTENBERG, Germany — In a race affected by heavy snowfall, World Championship bronze medalist Emily Sweeney plowed her way to fourth place Sunday in a World Cup luge race in Altenberg.

The weather was much appreciated by the aficionados at nearby Skilifte Rehefeld, but not so much at the DKB Eiskanal, site of the women’s singles race and team relay, the latter of which was canceled. FIL Media Director Wolfgang Harder reported that motorists were stranded in Altenberg as area roads were declared closed.

The luck of the track sweep was part of the story and came into play at this former East Germany location in the Ore Mountains adjacent to the Czech Republic.

Summer Britcher, of Glen Rock, Pennsylvania, was victimized by a late start number and the wrong end of the sweep. Britcher jovially made the best of it and was 20th.

“I definitely got lucky with my start number,” said Sweeney, of Suffield, Connecticut. “Being in Nations Cup (qualifying) this week, I had an earlier start, so that’s what allowed me to kind of get up there. My frustrations from the race come from the sweeping. I think it was kind of uneven and unfair, so I’m a little disappointed in that, but here we are.

“The team relay is canceled so it’s a bummer we didn’t get to compete together as a team, but we’ll be there next week.”

With the weather-related developments, USA Luge’s streak of six consecutive medal-winning weekends came to an end.

Italy’s Sandra Robatscher, the niece of six-time Olympic medalist and team coach Armin Zoeggeler, took advantage of the sweep with an outstanding run down the Altenberg track, and won the gold medal. It was her first career World Cup podium result, and her team’s first win of the season.

Robatscher, a Nations Cup qualifier Friday, benefitted from the track sweep just prior to her run and made no mistakes with the opportunity. She clocked a single run time of 53.932 seconds. With the conditions, it was nearly two seconds off the track record set by German Natalie Geisenberger in 2017.

The undermanned course crew found it difficult to keep up with the snowfall.

Geisenberger, World Cup leader and four-time Olympic gold medalist, also raced immediately after a sweep. Despite being the final starter in the field, the timely sweep coupled with her abilities, enabled Geisenberger to overcame the weather as she took the silver medal, 0.09 behind Robatscher.

Victoriia Demchenko, of Russia, whose father Albert won three Olympic medals and now coaches the team, took the bronze medal in 54.178. Sweeney was next in 54.184. In a brilliant return season after her crash in Pyeongchang, the fourth-place result was Sweeney’s fourth of the season, all approximately 0.01 of a second from the podium. In Altenberg, she was exactly 0.006 behind Demchenko. A slight foot tap on the ice prior to curve 13 may have been the difference.

Britcher, her teammate and two-time Olympian, and third in the overall World Cup rankings, was the third sled after a sweep and was then delayed at the start.

“The track crew was understaffed, leaving half of the track un-swept for the entire race,” Britcher said. “This means instead of being first, second or third after the sweep, later athletes were really 20th, 25th or 27th after the sweep, leading to an absurd race.

“At the handles no amount of frustration or complaining will make the track faster or more fair, so you might as well make the best of it in that moment. I can only hope that the FIL (International Luge Federation) ensures that the track organizers are capable of hosting a World Cup event before granting races to underprepared tracks in the future.”

Britcher wasn’t the lone elite racer hampered by the conditions. Geisenberger’s teammates were also at the mercy of the weather, the sweep and their start number. Julia Taubitz and 2018 Olympic silver medalist Dajana Eitberger were 24th and 25th, respectively. On the other hand, Tatyana Huefner, another German, started after the sweep and took seventh place.

The current World Cup rankings, however, remain unchanged with Geisenberger ahead by 131 points with three races remaining in Oberhof and Sochi. Taubitz, on the podium in seven of nine races, is second overall with Britcher third. Sweeney, in less than a full season, is ninth.

The next stop on the World Cup tour takes the athletes to Oberhof Feb. 9-10, and will include another team relay.

SATURDAY

ALTENBERG, Germany — Weather continued to impact the World Cup luge circuit as Saturday’s races were affected first by rain and fog, and then by heavy snowfall in Altenberg, Germany, on the border of the Czech Republic.

Such was the capricious weather in Saxony — prior to heavy snowfall for much of the men’s singles race, the second heat in the morning doubles competition turned wet with rain and fog.

USA Luge’s best sled belonged to the doubles team of Chris Mazdzer and Jayson Terdiman who finished ninth, as Mazdzer continues to work through a neck problem he sustained pulling from the start handles in training two weeks ago.

The ensuing men’s race saw Jonny Gustafson take 16th place, while Tucker West only received one run due to the weather. West, a two-time Olympian, struggled on the start ramp and wound up 29th in his lone heat. Mazdzer, the 2018 Olympic silver medalist, opted to race only in doubles as he did at World Championships last week.

DOUBLES

Mazdzer, of Saranac Lake, and Terdiman, of Pennsylvania, recorded two runs totaling 1 minute, 24.136 seconds. They were eighth in the opening attempt, but when the weather changed, so did all the second run times.

The American Olympians wound up 0.67 of a second from Austrian winners Thomas Steu and Lorenz Koller. Mazdzer and Terdiman are in seventh place in the overall World Cup standings, but just eight points from fifth. There are two doubles events and a sprint race remaining on the 2018-2019 schedule.

German World Champions (2017, 2019) Toni Eggert and Sascha Benecken were 0.04 of a second from the winners, with the ageless Latvian brothers, Andris and Juris Sics, who hold three Olympic medals, securing the bronze, 0.38 from Steu and Koller. The only Austrian team on the circuit captured their third win of the year after finishing fourth in Pyeongchang.

The start of the Altenberg course, a short one coming out of the junior start, helped determine the final outcome. It hampered four-time Olympic champions Tobias Wendl and Tobias Arlt. The Germans bumped the right wall below the start handles and rolled the sled onto its side. They were able to salvage the run to finish last.

The prideful duo started the final heat and promptly claimed the fastest run. They remain in third place in the season-long World Cup chase.

MEN

When the men’s race commenced, Altenberg morphed into a snow globe with heavy precipitation. In the second leg, the track crew swept every three racers as flakes, seemingly the size of egg whites, pummeled the course.

The decision was made to restrict the second leg to the top 20, which eliminated West from sliding a final heat.

Gustafson, of Massena, qualified sixth on Friday and took 16th.

Conditions fortuitously improved for the final five sleds of the competition that saw Felix Loch, of Germany, win his first World Cup event of the season and second straight after securing his sixth world title last weekend in Winterberg.

The 2010 and 2014 Olympic champion, who made a weather-related adjustment prior to the race, spotted Austria’s Reinhard Egger a lead of 0.05 at the intermission. But Loch stormed back in the final run to post a gold medal time of 1:48.669. Egger, in a breakout season, was runner-up by merely 0.004.

Pyeongchang bronze medalist Johannes Ludwig, also of Germany, placed third in 1:48.780.

After nine of 12 events, Ludwig leads the overall standings with 543 points, just six ahead of Loch. Egger, with four podium results including a victory, has now moved up to third at 520 points. 

Mazdzer is 13th; West is 14th; Gustafson 16th. All three have less than the maximum nine starts to date.