Sliding track off to fast start

Summer Britcher slides through the chicane section of Mount Van Hoevenberg’s track during the track’s opening day Tuesday. (Enterprise photo — Lou Reuter)

LAKE PLACID — While big machines and trucks moved earth, stone and building material below, working on the project that’s totally transforming the Olympic Sports Complex, members of the United States luge team were higher up on Mount Van Hoevenberg Tuesday morning, trying out the ice for the first time as the mile-long combined sliding track officially opened for the season.

Recently back from an on-ice training camp in Lillehammer, Norway, team members returned to their home track on a delightful, sunny day to put down the first runs of the season.

On the first day of sliding in Lake Placid, the Americans found the ice really fast, which Chris Mazdzer said is uncharacteristic in early October.

“Don’t let the fall foliage fool you. It’s insane. That was the fastest opening day that we’ve had here,” Mazdzer said after taking four trips down the track. “Literally, it’s fall, it’s nice, it’s warm out, and then we show up to the track and it’s like, “Oh man, we actually have to be on our game. This is serious stuff.’

“Our first runs were well within a second off the track record, and that’s really unusual,” he added. “The track crew, they did an awesome job getting it to that shape. No complaints here. We just jumped right into full-blown, mid-winter training, and it was awesome.”

Chris Mazdzer slides toward the finish during a luge training run Tuesday on the opening day of the sliding season at Mount Van Hoevenberg in Lake Placid. (Enterprise photo — Lou Reuter)

Men’s singles athlete Jonny Gustafson, a 22-year-old from Massena, took the first run of the season. Other athletes who slid Tuesday included Tucker West and women’s singles racers Emily Sweeney, Summer Britcher, Brittany Arndt and Ashley Farquharson.

Mazdzer, who grew up in Saranac Lake, began his first three runs from Start 3, and then headed to the top for his final trip of the day. This marks the second year that Mazdzer, who won the 2018 Olympic men’s singles silver medal, will compete in two disciplines. Just like last season, he’ll race singles and also team up with veteran Jayson Terdiman in doubles.

The opening races of the World Cup season are still six weeks away, but it’s already been a whirlwind start for the senior luge athletes. Especially Mazdzer, who proposed to his girlfriend (and now fiancee), Mara Marian, when he got back from Lillehammer to his home in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Mazdzer will be here in Lake Placid as the senior team trains for a week, and then heads to Whistler with Terdiman to test out a new doubles sled. After the trip to British Columbia, the Americans return to Lake Placid for another week on the ice, and then they’re off to Krasnaya Polyana, Russia, to train on the Sochi Olympic track where this winter’s World Championships will be held.

“It’s a busy preseason,” Mazdzer sighed. “Lillehammer, Salt Lake for three days, here for six days, Whistler for seven, back here for seven, and then Russia.”

Brittany Arndt of the United States Luge Team rides her sled through the chicane during training Tuesday in Lake Placid. (Enterprise photo — Lou Reuter)

After surgery at the end of last season, Mazdzer has high hopes for himself and his teammates heading into the 2019-20 campaign. Mazdzer’s only issue so far came from a recent fall during off-ice training, an accident in which he hurt his neck and elbow.

“Going into the season, I’ve never felt mentally better, and the teams look good,” Mazdzer said. “Summer, (Emily), Brittany, Ashley, they’re going to do really well this year. The guys — Tucker, Johnny and I — good things are coming for us as well.

“Jason and I, we’re just building a brand-new doubles sled. It’s just being finished up right now. The next couple days, we’re going to be putting the final touches on it, so that’s really exciting. We’re hoping it will be ready as soon as possible, the next three or four days.”

Mazdzer explained that the 2010 Olympic track in Whistler is a much better run than the chute on Mount Van Hoevenberg to see what their new sled can do.

“Hopefully we can test it out this week on this track, and then we go to Whistler. That’s a better place to start with doubles,” he said. “Doubles here in Lake Placid is extremely difficult, and it’s hard to know how the sled’s feeling when you’re just trying to hold on for your life. In Whistler, it’s smoother, longer transitions, more straightaways so you can see if the sled is pulling. You can play around with it a little bit, get more comfortable.”

Mazdzer not only stated that the senior team has high hopes, but the entire USA Luge program is putting itself in good position for years to come while putting in a great effort toward developing its younger sliders.

“Now we have the resources. We built the pipeline so now we’re going to have a lot of good kids,” Mazdzer said. “The problem is it’s going to take six years to show that this was the right thing to do. It takes so long to develop luge athletes. It’s not a like a two-year return. It’s a long term thing. You’re not going to see unbelievable results for another five, six years, but trust me, they’re coming.

“When we were in Lillehammer last week, the juniors were with us. It was awesome to see their junior team is bigger than our senior team. Just that alone shows you where we’ve focused developing athletes. I can’t wait for them to come up and start challenging us.”

On a personal level, when it comes to his competitive goals for the season, Mazdzer said it’s all about continuing to improve in a build up to the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.

“We want to get comfortable on this new doubles sled,” Mazdzer said. “Geometrically, it’s completely different, so it will drive drastically different than our other one, and we’re hoping that’s going to be faster in the long run. The plan is getting that under control while maintaining singles. Coming off some surgery, I’m hoping for some top fives, medal here in Lake Placid, that’s always a goal. Last year, I was one-hundredth away in fourth, so I want to take that to third, at least.”

The Luge World Cup season kicks off in Innsbruck, Austria, on Nov. 23 and 24, and then heads to North America where its second stop will be in Lake Placid Nov. 30 and Dec. 1.