Americans sliding into home
There’s nothing like coming home.
After three years away from the track at the Utah Olympic Park (UOP), World Cup luge is finally returning and the Americans couldn’t be happier.
"We are very happy to be back here. I wish a race would be here every year," said USA Luge team head coach Wolfgang Schadler.
"We love being here," agreed slider Ashley Hayden (Framingham, Mass.). "Park City is just great. It’s like being home."
Not only does sliding on American soil mean the comforts of home and a hometown crowd, but it also means more opportunities to train on the ice. The Americans arrived in Park City early last week and since then have been able to fit in a few more practice runs than they would normally get at a European tour stop. They spent all weekend sliding in cold, yet sunny conditions.
"You have to take advantage of this," said doubles luge slider Brian Martin (Palo Alto, Calif.). "This is nice to get eight runs a day."
The U.S. contingent was also happy to find the ice in perfect condition.
"The track crew did a pretty nice job," said Mark Grimette (Muskegon, Mich.), Martin’s sliding partner.
Perfect meaning smooth ice and temperatures that maintain the quality of the ice. At their first World Cup stop in Turin, high temperatures made conditions sloppy and difficult to slide on. With storms expected all week, ice conditions on the UOP track should not be an issue.
"This is the best ice I’ve seen since the Olympics," said slider Preston Griffall of Salt Lake.
Bad ice was just one of the problems for the U.S. at the opening stop. From top to bottom the sliders finished lower than they had hoped and look for the races on American soil to help them rebound quickly.
"It’s a reminder that nothing comes easily," said singles luge slider Tony Benshoof (White Bear Lake, Minn.), who finished a distant 21st in the races in Italy.
"It’s nice to be in the U.S.," said Martin. "This track is one of our favorites."
The team says a mix of both training and renewed focus should help them along.
"We’re feeling more positive," Martin said. "The team seems pretty strong. People seem to be sliding pretty well."
At the Olympics in Turin last season, only Benshoof and Courtney Zablocki (Highlands Ranch, Colo.) came close to medalling, both with fourth place finishes. Now that the quadrennial is starting once again, the team wants to establish themselves early on.
Already the team has put down some fast runs at the UOP track and Schadler says the remainder of this week’s training will center on working on the glitches.
For Benshoof, knocking on that Olympic medal door has made him hungry for more. Despite already enjoying an illustrious 18-year career, he still has his sights on making it onto the ultimate podium.
"It definitely gives me motivation," Benshoof said. "Fourth is the first loser. It’s the closest to a medal, but sometimes feels farthest away."
Benshoof spent the off-season recovering from a back injury and overcoming his Olympic letdown, but now says he feels "solid and confident."
Nobody is more excited than locally-trained sliders, Griffall and Garon Thorne of Orem. Both men learned how to race on the UOP’s ice and have been waiting to use the vast knowledge of the track to their advantage.
"Its fun to be back home," said Griffall, a doubles luge slider. "I’ve had so many runs here, not to mention friends and family. It definitely works out to our advantage."
Griffall is hoping for a huge crowd of fans over the weekend. He has been busy getting the word out to family and friends, and the track’s hiatus from World Cup should also generate more interest in the races.
"Salt Lake is a big place, so hopefully the word gets around," Griffall said.
Griffall, along with sliding partner Dane Joye (Carmel, N.Y.), are both very committed to making this season a breakout one. The two finished eighth at the Olympic Games and want to use this year to their advantage. As relative newcomers to the team, they plan to use the season to establish themselves as a force to be reckoned with.
"This year is no less maybe even more important," Griffall said. "This is our year to surprise everyone. We need to explode on the scene. We need to prove something to everyone."
Schadler says this season it is important for the whole team to put the Americans at the forefront of the luge scene.
Everybody’s focused," Schadler said. "Everyone knows that this season is big for the quadrennial. You know you have to settle yourself for four years. It’s an important season."
The Luge World Cup will be held this weekend, Dec. 1-2 at the UOP. Racing begins Friday, Dec. 1, with the Challenge Cup series opener, followed by the World Cup doubles event. The men and women’s singles World Cup races are slated for Saturday. For more information, visit http://www.usaluge.org or http://www.olyparks.com .
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