American lugers dominate at UOP World Cup
Following last weekend’s six-medal effort in Lake Placid, New York, the USA Luge team came to Park City hungry for more home-soil success on the World Cup circuit.
That success came quickly, as Summer Britcher and Erin Hamlin claimed first and second place, respectively, in the women’s luge competition at the Utah Olympic Park on Friday night.
On Saturday, the success continued. First, in the men’s competition, American Chris Mazdzer edged Austrian Wolfgang Kindl and German Felix Loch to win his second gold medal in as many weeks. Then, later Saturday night, Britcher and Hamlin finished first and second, respectively, in the BMW Sprint World Cup contest to claim another pair of medals for Team USA.
For Mazdzer, seeing the women perform so well on Friday night encouraged him to have his best performance, despite dealing with a sore neck.
"I had to step my game up," he said. "To see them compete at such a high level and do so well, it’s motivating for the team."
He quickly added that the women’s success didn’t make him feel any extra pressure.
"Actually, it takes a little pressure off you," he said. "It’s like, ‘Well, crap. If we don’t do very well, at least the women walked away [with medals] so this weekend is a success."
Mazdzer had the fastest first-run time of all the men, so he had to wait to go last during the second run. He said times like that — waiting for everyone else to go — test what a slider is made of mentally.
"You can definitely hear how people are doing," he said. "But you can’t really think about it. You have to stick to your plan. In this sport, if you try to push yourself above your ability — to slide at 110 percent — that’s when you start making mistakes. Even though all of this is going on, you have to back off and say, ‘All right. I have to focus on what I have to do and what’s been working.’"
Mazdzer’s plan involved taking risks on the upper section of the track to build speed for the bottom section. The plan worked well, despite a near-crash on his second run.
"The first [run] was the best run I’ve done all year," he said. "The second one I messed up a little bit, but at the same time, in order to go for the win, you have to ride aggressively. I was set up not to make it easily around [one of the first curves], but as you saw, some athletes made it easily around and they go slow the rest of the way. I gambled trying to make it through with just a little touch and I knew I’d be OK and then I was on a faster setup the rest of the way down."
Though the plan worked, Mazdzer said it didn’t make it any less stressful for him.
"The gamble paid off, but it’s definitely nerve-wracking on the handles when you can feel how hard the ice is and you’re just like, ‘Oh man, this is the moment of truth. Here we go,’" he said. "Then you still have the rest of the way to go. I have this moment of realization like, ‘I made it through. This is awesome. OK, now forget about everything — you still have like half a mile of track to go.’"
Between the first and second runs of the men’s competition, a light snow began to fall at the Olympic Park. Mazdzer said the weather conditions played to Team USA’s advantage.
"This little bit of snow makes the ice surface really slippery because you don’t have that perfect contact of metal to ice," he said. "That’s not something you want to think about, but I’m looking down the handles like, ‘Oh man, this is going to be slippery.’ We definitely have an advantage with the temps dropping. Not all the athletes are used to this hard ice here. That played to our advantage, although it’s scary for me still."
Mazdzer said winning back-to-back World Cup events has been a major highlight of his career.
"When I won last week, I thought, ‘OK, now I can retire,’" the 27-year-old said. "Now I go ahead and win this week. It’s awesome to win at home."
Though the United States portion of the World Cup schedule is now over, the teams head to Calgary, Canada, this coming weekend to compete in another event on North American soil. Mazdzer said he hopes to continue his hot streak at the Calgary track, where he’s had success in the past.
"It’s just focusing on the process," he said. "I won the Sprint Cup there last year and finished third in the World Cup. That was, at the time, my best weekend ever — until last weekend and this weekend. Hopefully everything will fall into place."
The World Cup competition in Calgary takes place Dec. 18-19. For results, visit http://www.usaluge.org.
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