Mazdzer ‘fired up’ for Beijing

Chris Mazdzer, of Saranac Lake, brakes in the finish area after his first luge run at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. (AP photo — Michael Sohn)

SARANAC LAKE — Chris Mazdzer says the Olympics feel a little weird this time around. No kidding.

After the former Saranac Laker won silver four years ago in South Korea — the first non-European male to win an Olympic medal in singles luge — he decided to raise the degree of difficulty. He became the only World Cup luger doing doubles as well as singles. He hoped to be the first to win an Olympic medal in each, but it was not to be. A crash in a recent qualifying race dashed his doubles dream. He squeaked through in singles and says he’s excited about going to China for his fourth big show, “but it’s this strange feeling where I feel like I’m not bringing 100% of what I was doing to the Olympics.”

“I’m actually super beat down,” he replied when asked how he was doing at the start of the Jan. 17 interview, “just holding on, just trying to make it through. … Getting to the games sometimes is where the struggle and the battle is.”

Nevertheless, he also said, “I feel pretty fired up all the time. I don’t need more motivation. I have the drive to want to succeed.”

Double dose

Mazdzer wishes Jayson Terdiman could join him in China. The two are the same age, 33, and were doubles partners as teens before Mazdzer switched to singles. They re-teamed after the last Olympics and did pretty well their first season, finishing eighth overall in 2018-19. They fell into the teens and 20s the last three seasons, but still, their elimination on Jan. 7 came as a surprise. For Terdiman, it meant retirement.

There is a reason why no one but Mazdzer does both doubles and singles luge at the World Cup level. They are very different skills, and doing twice the training and twice the racing takes a toll on one’s body.

“Physically, you’re just throwing yourself down the track more times a day, you have less time to recover, you’re spending more time at the track,” he said. “Plus, to crash on a doubles sled, they’re way more violent. The top man on a doubles sled (that would be Mazdzer) really takes a punch when you crash — and they’re the airbag.”

Luge lessons

Mazdzer has loved sledding since he was a 3-year-old in Massachusetts. His family later moved to the Plattsburgh area, and when he was 8, his parents took him to Lake Placid to try bobsled. But the line was shorter for luge, so he tried that instead — and was hooked. His parents’ move to Saranac Lake helped him pursue the sport, and at age 13 he first went to Europe on the junior circuit. (His parents, Dr. Ed Mazdzer and Marty Lawthers, still live in Saranac Lake, although Chris now lives in Salt Lake City.) Now, he said, the sport is as fun as ever “because I have that experience, the skill, the confidence to commit, to execute just a really good run on a difficult track.” Mazdzer has ADHD, and “the only time I can focus fully on something” is sliding down a luge track.

“Luge has been a great teacher, for many different reasons,” he said. “One of them is to understand how to handle fear, nervousness, anxiety. Because yeah, what we’re about to do, there is an element of risk that is involved, 100%, and if you don’t feel that, then you are a psychopath.”

The sport has taught him to attack scary situations without tensing up.

“There’s an element of fear that if you can harness it, it increases your adrenaline, it makes you more aware, it helps you become more focused, and I think it does help you perform better,” he said. “You’re nervous, that’s OK, but you’ve got to commit. You’ve got to go for it.”

Tough times

He went for it four years ago when he sold his car to buy luge equipment. He had peaked in the World Cup standings in 2015-16, finishing third overall, but by fall 2017 he was posting disappointing results. He knew he needed a sled upgrade, but he was no longer USA Luge’s priority for new gear. So, with the blessing of his girlfriend (now wife) Mara, he got $5,000 for his Subaru and spent it on sled parts, figuring he’d ride his bike when he returned home — unless, of course, he won an Olympic medal. And against all odds, he did. After struggling all season, even with his new gear, everything came together amid cold, fast conditions on Pyeonchang’s challenging track. The historic achievement, combined with Mazdzer’s charisma, catapulted him to national fame, including a spin on TV’s “Dancing with the Stars.”

Now he is again an underdog, ranked 22nd in what he called a “relentless season.” He broke his foot in September and did something to his neck in the Jan. 14-15 races. He’s been away from Mara and baby son Nicolai since September, except for a five-day Christmas break; he couldn’t even visit them before flying to China.

And then there’s the pandemic, which means no socializing, no spectators and no North American races. The isolation has kept Mazdzer from being his naturally gregarious self. He is a politician among athletes: Since 2013, all lugers of all counties have chosen him to represent them to the FIL board.

The Olympics, too, will have no foreign spectators, including athletes’ families and friends. Mazdzer’s family cheering section was the loudest at the track at past Olympics, and he fed off their energy.

The time difference makes it worse. When the men’s races start on Feb. 5, it will be 7:10 p.m. in China but 6:10 a.m. for his parents in Saranac Lake, and 4:10 a.m. for his wife in Salt Lake City.

“You can’t even talk to people before that,” he said. “You don’t get to spend that time with them ahead of time, which I found to be really helpful. It just helps you relax a little bit and keep things more normalized. It’s going to be very different not having them around. Plus, they bring all the noise.”

While his natural optimism is a little dented, he always seems able to envision solutions. One thing is for sure: Mazdzer will always go for it.


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