Juniors slide toward success
It was a weekend of solid sliding for Chris Mazder at the Verizon U.S. Junior 20 and under) National Luge Championships held at the Utah Olympic Park track, March 4-5. The 17-year-old native of Saranac Lake, N.Y. made his weekend doubly sweet by winning both the seeding races on Saturday and the Junior National Championship titles in both singles and doubles luge.
"I love this track," said the exuberant Mazder. "Utah is one of the best places. It’s so fast, so smooth."
Mazder finished with a two-run time of one minute, 24.791 seconds in the national race.
The event took place under warm, sun-filled skies, making it enjoyable for sliders and spectators alike.
One of the Wasatch Luge Club’s (WSL) own sliders, Trent Matheson also found success at the competition. The high schooler from Bountiful has been on a meteoric rise from a recreational luge competitor to one of the most promising young sliders in the West. Matheson finished third both days, clearing enjoying the balmy temperatures and the advantage of sliding on his home track. In the national title race, Matheson clocked a total time of 1:26.010 to win bronze.
"It’s been pretty good," said Matheson. "I like sliding in good weather."
The first of the two events, the seeding race, helps to determine where the athletes will be ranked next year. Jon Owen, western regional manager for USA Luge, was very pleased to see many Wasatch Luge Club sliders participate and finish well. Besides Matheson, locals Addison Dailey (Salt Lake City) and Garon Thorne (Orem) also finished in the top five in the men’s seeding race. In the national championship competition, Thorne took the silver medal turning in a combined time of 1:25.858. All three traveled on the Junior World Cup circuit this season.
In the women’s race, Megan Sweeney (Suffield, Conn.) took the women’s singles title after posting the fastest times in both runs with a combined finish of 1:29.452. Amanda Allen (Lynbrook, N.Y.) took sliver after clocking a two-run time of 1:29.689.Another Wasatch Luge Club product, Paige Duvall (Provo) earned bronze with a time of 1:30.900 in two runs.
In doubles action, Mazder and Thorne finished first on both days. They won the national crown with a two-heat time of 1:28.814, 1.792 seconds. Two pairs of WSL sliders won the silver and bronze. Dailey and Taylor Morris (South Jordan, Utah) took second with a combined time of 1:30.606. Kyle McLeod (Kaysville, Utah) and Zachary Clark (Salt Lake City, Utah) raced to third with 1:32.711 time.
The racers competed in front of large crowds on both days. Parents from local areas as well as those that traveled from the East stood in a sunny spot at curve 12 on the track and cheered their sliders on. Nick Gerardi (Queensburg, N.Y.) had his parents, sister and aunts from New York and the Midwest all present to watch him slide. Lea Vanderlinden from Midway had a large cheering section from the Heber area, including parents, Terry and Shauna and her grandmother, Lighla, who flew in from Orange County, Calif. just for the event.
"Luge is a family affair," said Terry.
The Vanderlindens are related to the Dailey family, who were also at the race to cheer on son, Addison.
Matheson says that it’s nice to have his family friends at a race after a long season in Europe. This was the first time, his mother, Debbie, was able to see her son slide in competition this year.
The weekend was also a study in different approaches to junior luge development. Most of the athletes are discovered through the USA Luge Slider Search, a nationwide tour that uses adapted luge sleds on wheels to find youth luge prospects, but those on the West Coast often follow a very different training path than their Eastern counterparts. Most of the young sliders in the West hail from towns between Ogden and Provo and attack their sport in much the same way as any sport, heading to the track after to school for a few hours before going home each night. On the East Coast, many of the kids leave their families to live and train in Lake Placid for weeks at a time, far away from the comforts of home. Mazder, who grew up just 15 minutes away from Lake Placid, started sliding after attending a camp at age seven, is one the few sliders in the East Coast program able to train while still living at home. Once they are good enough to make the Jr. World Cup circuit they join together as a group and travel throughout Europe for most of the winter.
Three-time Olympian Duncan Kennedy, head development coach for the USA Luge program, said that both training formulas seem to work and when both sides eventually come together to travel for Jr. World Cup, they make a very strong team.
Many of the East Coast sliders were attending the national championships to gain experience. For some it one of their first opportunities to race on a different track and see how they stack up against the nation’s best in the junior ranks.
"It’s a good experience for the kids to see the track and the coaches to see the kids on the track," Kennedy said.
It’s also a chance for the sliders who have spent the year in Europe to finally enjoy competing on home soil.
"We love this track. They really like the weather, and love the track crew," said Kennedy.
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The Park City Ice Arena is expected to temporarily close later in 2021 to allow crews to replace the ice surface and perform other maintenance work, one of a series of projects City Hall plans to outline at an upcoming open house. It will be an in-person event.