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Team USA luge athletes return to Sochi

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — The international luge season’s main event has descended upon the Sochi region as the 2014 Olympic site is ready to host the 2020 International Luge Federation (FIL) World Championships Friday through Sunday. It’s the first time Russia has hosted the FIL’s premier event.

The Sochi track at Krasnaya Polyana is part of United States luge history as it is the site of Erin Hamlin’s 2014 Olympic bronze medal. It was the first singles medal in team history and the first by an American woman.

USA Luge is among 19 national federations representing 100 athletes that descended upon Sochi over a week ago to participate in the traditional International Training Week that precedes the Viessmann World Championship. That week-long session, however, didn’t take off as planned as the charter flight bringing teams from Frankfurt to Sochi was overweight. The ensuing delay resulted in some 25 sled boxes arriving at Krasnaya Polyana several days late. As a result, the FIL canceled the first two days of training, but by late in the week, normalcy had been restored.

The seven-member United States team comes to the season’s highlight after a two-medal effort in the Oberhof, Germany World Cup two weekends ago. On a track that is normally only friendly to Germany, Summer Britcher, of Glen Rock, Pennsylvania, raced off with a World Cup bronze medal. It was the first podium result for a U.S. woman in Oberhof since Cameron Myler took third place in February 1996.

Seemingly spurred by Britcher’s achievement, the U.S. relay team of Britcher, Tucker West and the doubles unit of Chris Mazdzer/Jayson Terdiman bolted to a silver medal later in the day. The team relay made its Olympic debut in the 2014 Olympic Winter Games.

“It’s always motivating to go into worlds on a high note,” Britcher said. “I definitely feel good about going into this weekend. I had a good week of training and just excited to start racing.”

Britcher, a member of the 2014 and 2018 Olympic teams, has garnered five World Cup medals in 2019-2020, four in singles and another in the most recent team relay. Having placed fourth twice at previous World Championships, she is currently ranked sixth on tour after finishing third in the previous two winters.

At the Sanki Sliding Center, Britcher’s teammates will have two events on the line. National team rookie Ashley Farquharson and Brittney Arndt, both of Park City, Utah, will also be in the battle for the medals in the U23 World Championships. This event is held in conjunction with worlds as a race within a race. Britcher, in fact, was the 2017 U23 World Champion.

“It definitely adds a second tone to it,” Farquharson saidof the U23 event. “Even if you don’t have the fastest race at worlds, you know a lot of girls are going to be taken out of that U23 category, so you might have a better ranking. It’s more of a confidence boost that anything.”

“This is my first World Championships, so it’s really cool to be here, of course,” Arndt said. “Just taking in the experience. I really don’t know what to expect at this point. It’ll be a good couple of days of racing. I’m really excited.”

Arndt and Farquharson have been in the sport together since the beginning when they slid in the Park City after-school program. They were junior teammates who were split when Arndt, a year older, aged out of the younger ranks and moved on to the national team roster. Farquharson’s most recent World Championship experience actually came a year ago when she finished fourth at junior worlds in Innsbruck.

A notable absence in Russia will be Emily Sweeney, of Lake Placid. A bronze medal winner at the 2019 World Championships, Sweeney ended her season in Oberhof after the first run of the singles race. Still bothered by a neck problem stemming from the 2018 Winter Games, Sweeney flew home for evaluation and course of action.

On the men’s side, Pyeongchang silver medalist Chris Mazdzer, of Saranac Lake, has returned to double duty. The only competitor to race singles and doubles, Mazdzer, too, has battled a neck problem. He rested for several weeks recently and then returned to team up with Jayson Terdiman for the anchor leg that secured the team relay silver medal in Oberhof. Mazdzer was on the ice for singles and doubles training during International Training Week and benefited from chiropractic care.

“My neck is holding up well,” Mazdzer said. “The track here is really smooth, really fast. The conditions are fantastic and that makes it easier on the body. The smoother the track is, the less wear and tear my body is taking, but I’m about to go through some double sessions over the next few days going into World Championships. I took the day (Monday) off because it’s going to be full out the next six days non-stop.”

Looking closer at his performances this season, Mazdzer has proven that his mental fortitude, sliding skills and equipment are up for the task, but the physical ailments have hampered his start times.

Even Terdiman, a 2014 and 2018 Olympian, has not been spared a recent neck issue, although he’s well on the way to healing.

“First time back here in Sochi in four years,” said Terdiman, of Berwick, Pennsylvania. “We were a little delayed on training because sled shipment took a turn for the worse. We got our sled a couple of days late … jumped on the sled and we got six runs in and I actually tweaked by neck, pretty much the same thing Chris did in Norway. Lucky for me our chiropractor was already here and I got treated right away. I haven’t slid since that sixth run, but my neck is back to 95 percent. We’re going to jump back on it (Tuesday).”

Singles teammates Tucker West and Jonny Gustafson have no problems getting their runs underway quickly. The numbers have shown them to be at or near the top of the field off the start handles. West, of Ridgefield, Connecticut, another two-time Olympian and U23 World Champion in 2016, grabbed two World Cup silver medals in Lake Placid this season, along with an eighth-place result in singles and sixth place sprint finish, both at Whistler. He’s striving to take that North American success abroad, but his reaction time in the team relay has dominated the event wherever it’s held, including most recently, in Oberhof.

“This is one of those tracks that changes quite bit every time we come here,” West said. “We were fortunate to have training here in November, and that training went well. The (curve) profiles seem to be similar to what we had at that time of year. It’s a fast and challenging track. And that’s proven to be the case this week. It’s been excellent training and it should be an exciting race.”

Gustafson is gradually taking his start advantage to the rest of the track. The Massena resident is long and strong, traits of the prototypical modern slider. Yet learning the various tracks is an important phase of development in a young racer. The different, yet fortunate aspect of a World Championship event is the added training runs that are afforded the competitors during International Training Week that precedes the official race week.

“It’s always nice to have extra runs on the track you’re racing on,” Gustafson said. “Just having those extra runs down the track and being able to have more time to fix problem spots and fix any issues your having, it’s just nicer to have more time on the track.”

Scanning the field in Russia, many observers are anticipating home team domination and with good reason. Looking at last year’s World Cup final at the Sanki Sliding Center, Russian men took four of the top five places; they collected a women’s silver; grabbed three of the top four spots in doubles; and won the team relay. In all, they raced away with six of 12 medals. Eighteen other teams hope to lessen Russia’s impact this weekend.

Follow the World Championships on the OlympicChannel.com live stream. Sprint races in Sochi are set for Friday at 5:30 a.m. Eastern; Doubles and women’s singles Saturday beginning at 5:40 a.m. Eastern; Men’s singles and team relay Sunday at 5:15 a.m. Eastern.

Four TV shows will air from Sochi, the first 3 on the Olympic Channel: Feb. 15 at 10:30 a.m. and noon, and Feb. 16 at 10 a.m. NBC Sports Network will air a two-hour show Feb. 16 beginning at 10:30 p.m. All times Eastern. Schedule subject to change. We are in the midst of 33.5 hours of luge coverage this season on NBC platforms.

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