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An early look at Pyeongchang

US Luge team evaluates 2018 Olympic venue

February 16, 2017
By LOU REUTER - Senior Sports Writer ( , Lake Placid News

With the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics now less than a year away, USA Luge athletes are currently in South Korea getting familiar with the world's newest sliding track. At the same time, they just might be discovering how their lives might be next February when they go for the gold in the fastest sport on ice.

Sliders from around the globe began gathering at the Alpensia Sliding Center last week for international training sessions, as they prepare for both this weekend's World Cup competition and pile up as many runs as possible in a lead-up to the 2018 Olympic Games.

The Americans are among 156 luge racers from a record 29 nations who are testing out the run, and they spoke to the media in a conference call on Tuesday to describe how their time in South Korea is unfolding.

Article Photos

With the track at the Alpensia Sliding Center in the foreground, the vista unfolds below at the mountain cluster in Pyeongchang, South Korea, where events will be held at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games.
(Photo — Jayson Terdiman)

"I guess you want every athlete who has the potential to go to the Olympics to come here," said veteran men's singles racer Chris Mazdzer, a two-time Olympian from Saranac Lake. "So we're seeing China train with us for the first time. Turkey, Jordan - a lot of the smaller nations that typically aren't competing on the World Cup circuit are here."

It's the fourth time Mazdzer has visited the Pyeongchang region where the Olympics will take place, while many of his teammates are getting their first taste of the track where they will compete in the country that will welcome the world a little less than a year from now.

"There's a really big positive energy here, even down to all the volunteers who are at the track, all the staff," said Matt Mortensen, who competes in doubles with Jayson Terdiman. "These guys are asking us constantly what they can do better to improve the venue, how do they pronounce our names. They even put out for this World Cup entrance songs that athletes want to go to the handles with. They're asking all the right questions. They're really happy to be putting on this show for the world."

The first priority for all the sliders who are in South Korea is to become intimate with the track where they will be vying for Olympic medals. Remsen's Erin Hamlin is certainly approaching her training days there with that mindset, although she's also looking for a successful performance on the ice during this weekend's World Cup event.

"Right now I'm definitely just focused on getting down. I'm still figuring a lot out and trying to get consistent," said Hamlin, who won bronze in women's singles at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. "Obviously, there's a World Cup here this weekend so I want to do well for that and be fast, but in the bigger picture I want to get as much information and learn as much as I can to bring back here next year and be comfortable here."

"This track has different sections that kind of resemble other tracks," said Terdiman, who spends many months a year living in Lake Placid while he trains. "There's a little bit of Lake Placid here, there's a little bit of Park City, there's a little bit of Paramonovo (Russia). You get some different feel but also with some familiarity. It's a lot of fun."

After failing to qualify for the past two Winter Games, Emily Sweeney is sliding in Pyeongchang with high hopes of returning a year from now as a first-time Olympian representing the United States.

"The track here kind of winds back and forth. It's actually pretty compact," Sweeney said. "When you look at if from afar, they made really good use of the space of the actual terrain that they had to work with. I think you'll see some exciting racing.

"There are definitely some technical spots," Sweeney continued. "Overall, I think once we get more comfortable, get the hang of it, I think we can get a little more consistency. The spots where we can kind of lay back and get some speed are going to be huge, because other than one or two spots that are a little tricky, the rest is going to be all about finding speed."

Stepping away from the track itself, the athletes are also getting the opportunity to see how Olympic preparations are progressing. They are getting to see the lay of the land and getting to know the people, culture and food of Korea.

"The Korean organizing committee, the Korean people themselves are so friendly," said men's singles racer Tucker West, who won gold at the beginning of December when the World Cup luge tour stopped in Lake Placid. "It should be a great event."

"The food has been awesome," Terdiman said. "I tried some ramen from the source, its incredible over here. We did some Korean barbecue one night, which was amazing. One really cool thing that we got to do was a couple of us went down and watched the speedskating World Championships last weekend, and that was really cool. It's fun to get to go see athletes that I haven't seen since Sochi that are here competing in their test events and getting prepared for the games just a year out."

During his visit, Mortensen was particularly impressed with the bus transportation the team has been utilizing.

"They even stop for lunch for us," he said. "We've had a great travel experience so far. If anything, we'd love to have a trailer to put our sleds in. The buses get crowded but as far as logistics and getting us from one place to another, everything has been very much on time. They will not leave until the clock says 15 or 30."

As a four-time visitor to the region where the Olympics will take place, Mazdzer has witnessed more of the evolution the area has undergone as the games draw closer than the rest of his teammates.

"Honestly, a year and a half ago, you wouldn't really be able to tell the Olympics were happening here besides all the venues going up," he said. "Now with all the test events going on, you can tell there's a lot going on - there's ski jumpers, skiers that are cycling in and out. And the opening ceremonies, it's a removable building that's on its way up, same with the athletes' village.

"You're finally getting the sense here that there's construction happening and there's a big event about to take place," Mazdzer added. "Although it still looks like there are things that need to be done, but with the venues, as far as I can tell, things look really good so far."

When the 2014 Olympics took place in Sochi, Russia, security and the threat of terrorism were a big concern prior to and during the event. Fortunately, those worries never became an issue. With the Pyeongchang Olympic region situated so close to North Korea, ruled by dictator Kim Jong-un, safety will again be in the forefront when it comes to hosting the games.

Mazdzer, however, noted that from what he's learned, the South Korean people have gotten used to the provocative words and actions, including missile tests, coming out of the northern part of what once was a united nation.

"What's really interesting in South Korea is they are really de-tuned from North Korea," Mazdzer said. "I remember one time when I was here earlier I asked one of the locals 'What's going on with North Korea because they're doing all these ballistic missile tests and it's coming up on our news feed?' They pretty much say it's just crazy Kim being crazy Kim.

"They don't seem to be all that worried about it or maybe they are just so desensitized to it. That's probably the right word because they're doing something every day. Here, where we are, there's really no mention of it except what we get in our feeds. South Koreans say this is completely normal."

The Viessmann World Cup competition in Pyeongchang takes place Saturday and Sunday, and it's the next-to-last stop on the tour this season. The circuit wraps up in Altenberg, Germany with racing Feb. 25 and 26.

USA Luge athletes will have one more opportunity to train on the Alpensia track prior to the Olympics when they visit the venue again next fall.



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