Sweeney just off Championships podium
WINTERBERG, Germany — Pyeongchang Olympian Emily Sweeney paced all Americans with a fourth-place effort Friday in the sprint race as the luge World Championships got underway in Winterberg, Germany.
Earlier, on a cloudy, 25-degree afternoon in Hochsauerland, 2018 Olympic silver medalist Chris Mazdzer teamed with two-time Olympian Jayson Terdiman for fifth place in the doubles sprint competition.
The sprint format uses the “flying start” concept where all disciplines embark from their normal positions, but the timing begins some 100 meters later than usual. It is a non-Olympic event.
The USA doubles team was sidelined for more than a week. Mazdzer injured his neck pulling from the handles as he started a singles training run. They didn’t get on a sled together until this past Wednesday.
Sweeney, who has paced herself in returning from a crash in the final Olympic run 11 months ago in South Korea, finished behind three Germans. Natalie Geisenberger, arguably the greatest woman racer in the history of luge, took the world title.
For the third time this season, Sweeney has placed fourth. The Suffield, Connecticut, athlete ended up less than 0.08 of a second from the podium. She had the same fourth place results in both Lake Placid World Cup events last month.
Two-time Olympian Summer Britcher, of Pennsylvania, was eighth and lost time in the closing stages of the Winterberg track which concludes with a pronounced uphill turn to the finish.
USA Luge had no entries in the men’s sprint as Tucker West and Jonny Gustafson, of Massena, did not advance beyond the morning qualifier.
From where Sweeney was last February and over the summer, to her current performance level, is impressive. The 25-year-old has improved from sedentary to the World Cup podium, and now to the cusp of a World Championship medal.
“I’m pretty happy with my performance today,” she said. “I had two good runs, one in the qualifying and then one in the sprint World Championships. I would have liked to have been closer to the German times just to be in the top three, but I’m glad I could put some pressure on them.”
For several sleds, Sweeney, who won the sprint World Cup here last season, occupied the podium in second place, but was left to the mercy of Geisenberger and German teammate Julia Taubitz to hold on to her medal position. Two sleds later, Geisenberger had her world championship crown in 38.628 seconds, with her much younger teammate only 0.01 of a second behind. They are the top two in this year’s World Cup overall standings. The German sweep was completed by Dajana Eitberger, in 38.668. Sweeney followed in 38.747. Britcher was timed in 38.896.
For Geisenberger, the 2014 and 2018 Olympic gold medalist, this was her first sprint world crown and eighth overall. The event debuted in 2016 and was captured by the retired Swiss racer, Martina Kocher. American Erin Hamlin, on site serving two weeks as a U.S. assistant coach, was the 2017 winner.
While the world trained in Winterberg for the past 11 days, Mazdzer and Terdiman were spectators. The situation was caused when Mazdzer strained his neck on Jan. 15. The problem even impacted the quality of his sleep.
A midweek MRI and continued treatment from USA Luge trainers and a doctor of chiropractic medicine brought over from the U.S., improved the Saranac Lake racer to where he and Terdiman could take their final three training runs this week on Wednesday and Thursday.
They qualified 10th fastest Friday morning, and later threw down a money run in the afternoon.
The twosome raced into the top spot and held the position until late in the top 15 field of finalists.
“That run was amazing,” Terdiman said. “Today, fifth felt like gold. Only a few days ago I didn’t even think we would get to compete. This is amazing.”
Added Mazdzer, “I didn’t know if were going to be able to race either. (We’re) so pumped for being able to pull out a fifth place with only three training runs.”
From a starting point below the women, they concluded the sprint doubles dash in 30.895, merely 0.08 from new World Champions Toni Eggert and Sascha Benecken of Germany. Mazdzer and Terdiman tied for the top “flying” speed as they crossed the start line.
The winners rallied in the late stages to overcome Sochi and Pyeongchang gold medalists Tobias Wendl and Tobias Arlt by 0.012 of a second. Austria claimed the bronze medal with Thomas Steu and Lorenz Koller in 30.829. These three sleds occupy the top three spots in the current World Cup rankings.
Friday’s men’s race conjured up memories of the 2018 Winter Games. Nearly a year ago, Austria’s David Gleirscher, who had never so much as taken a World Cup medal, stunned the Olympic world by capturing the gold.
On Friday, his teammate Jonas Mueller wrote his own version of that story, on German ice no less. Mueller was fourth in the Koenigssee World Cup three weeks ago but had never been on the podium. Due to weather, that singles race was relegated to one heat, which should have been the first tip-off. After qualifying second fastest in the morning, Mueller shocked German Olympic medalists Felix Loch and Johannes Ludwig, and 2015 World Champion Semen Pavlichenko of Russia.
Those three were posing in the leader’s box as Mueller, the last in the field, channeled his inner Gleirscher as the winner edged the field by 0.02 of a second. Loch was second with Pavlichenko third.
Germany took six of nine medals on opening day. The stage is set for the weekend action that features all four Olympic events. Saturday’s 48th World Championships continue with doubles and women’s singles beginning at 5:10 a.m. ET.