A November Mother’s Day for USA Luge

‘Luge Moms’ try new Cliffside Coaster while sons, daughters train in their ‘bubble’

Seven of the USA Luge Moms pose Sunday, Nov. 15 after riding the new Cliffside Coaster at the Olympic Sports Complex at Mount Van Hoevenberg. From left are Marty Lawthers (mom of Chris Mazdzer), Pam West (mom of Tucker West), Carrie Britcher (mom of Summer Britcher), Krista DiGregorio (mom of Zack DiGregorio), Jill Cardinale Segger (mom of Duncan Segger), Joanne Gustafson (mom of Jonny Gustafson) and Sue Sweeney (mom of Emily Sweeney). (Photo provided)

LAKE PLACID — At noon – an hour after USA Luge senior team members finished training on their home track at Mount Van Hoevenberg Sunday, Nov. 15 — seven of their mothers tried out the new Cliffside Coaster attraction. It was a Mother’s Day of sorts for the “Luge Moms.”

It’s a real thing. They even have a Twitter account — @LugeMoms.

It’s a strange year with the coronavirus pandemic, and the families aren’t hanging out with each other at the finish line like they have in the past — clanging cowbells and waving American flags to cheer on their sons and daughters. USA Luge officials decided to hold off on World Cup racing until after the new year, if it’s even feasible. In the meantime, the athletes are training in their own bubble on the combined luge, bobsled and skeleton track at the Olympic Sports Complex.

“This is true for all elite athletes,” said Marty Lawthers, mother of 2018 Olympic silver medalist Chris Mazdzer. “I think the kids are crazy because their moms are just a little crazy, too. Maybe we like the thrill of speed.”

It was Lawthers of Saranac Lake — missing her time with the other Luge Moms — who suggested a trip to the Cliffside Coaster.

Sue Sweeney (mom of Emily Sweeney) (Photo provided)

“I just blurted out, ‘Hey, I’d really like to ride the mountain coaster. What do you think?'” she said. “They answered the call, and it was wonderful to reconnect.”

Moms drove from all over the Northeast to ride the coaster. There was Pam West, mother of two-time Olympian Tucker West of Connecticut; Carrie Britcher, mother of two-time Olympian Summer Britcher of Pennsylvania; Krista DiGregorio, mother of junior team member Zack DiGregorio of Massachusetts; Jill Cardinale Segger, mother of new senior team member Duncan Segger of Lake Placid; Joanne Gustafson, mother of Jonny Gustafson of Massena; and Sue Sweeney, mother of 2018 Olympian Emily Sweeney of Lake Placid.

“It’s a very isolating sport, and it’s not well known, so you get close to the other moms,” said Lawthers, who has been a Luge Mom since her son was in eighth grade. He’s 32 years old now. She began by calling herself Luge Mom 101, “as in, ‘I don’t know what’s going on.'”

Mazdzer and his parents moved to Saranac Lake in 2001. By 2010, he was competing in the Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver, Canada, then Sochi, Russia in 2014 and Pyeongchang, South Korea in 2018. He’s seen some extreme highs — like collecting a number of World Cup medals, finishing third overall in the World Cup standings in 2015-16 and his Olympic silver medal in 2018 for men’s singles. But there have been tough times, too, like disappointing seasons in 2016 and 2017 and recent injuries.

“It is a very up and down sport, and you do need to have your hand held by other moms who are going through the same thing,” Lawthers said. “As a parent, even though they’re older … you really feel for them because they’re on a world stage and they’re trying to accomplish something that is out of the ordinary and represents the country. So when he got the medal, that was like, ‘Whaaat?!'”

Jill Cardinale Segger (mom of Duncan Segger) (Photo provided)

With such a small group of families for a relatively small team at USA Luge, Lawthers said she enjoys the camaraderie of the parents, especially the moms.

“It’s like it becomes your own little cult, and you try not to get too wrapped up with your kids, but eventually you do. You get sucked into it,” she said.

Jill Cardinale Segger has been a Luge Mom for a while, but this is the first full year with Duncan on the senior team, competing with doubles partner Dana Kellogg. She organized Sunday’s outing.

“This was the first time we sat down just as women, just a group of moms,” Jill said. “And being a Luge Mom, there’s a lot of feelings and emotions. So when a group of women get together, it’s a little different than just chatting at a party where there’s tons of people.”

They joked about getting more runs than the kids that day.

Joanne Gustafson (mom of Jonny Gustafson) (Photo provided)

Joanne Gustafson has been a Luge Mom for the senior team for several years, but Jonny was into hockey before trying the USA Luge slider search and making the junior team.

“For a couple of years, he did both luge and hockey, but then he had to choose. So he chose luge, and he’s still going,” said Joanne, who enjoys the support the moms give each other. “When we’re all watching the races at 3 a.m. on our computers and texting each other, it’s very helpful. … It helps a lot to have people actually know how you feel and know what you’re going through.”

What’s the difference between a hockey mom and a Luge Mom?

Joanne says she travels a lot farther for World Cup races than for hockey games.

Sue Sweeney said she’s been a hockey mom, and it’s easier than being a Luge Mom.

Carrie Britcher (mom of Summer Britcher) (Photo provided)

“A, you get to sit down (in hockey), which we don’t really do in luge as a spectator,” Sue said. “And you’re out in the cold for a whole lot longer with luge than you are with hockey.”

Sue has been a Luge Mom for 22 seasons, first with daughter Megan from 2007 to 2010 and now with Emily.

“I’ve become the grandma,” she said. “I’m the ‘Luge Grandma,’ I think.”

Luge is not a spectator-friendly sport because parents don’t get to see their children very much — only on TV screens as they proceed down the track and at the finish line.

“But the sport itself is exciting and nerve-wracking going so fast on the ice,” Sue said. “And seeing the smile at the end. There’s nothing better than seeing your child do well at something that is very high pressure, whether it’s work or play or sport … especially when they beat the Germans.”

Pam West (mom of Tucker West) (Photo provided)

In luge, the highs can get quite high, and the lows can get quite low. Just ask Emily Sweeney. She was the 2013 junior world champion and has tallied seven World Cup medals (one gold, five silver and one bronze). But she also had a major crash during the 2018 Winter Olympics — a scary moment for the entire family. How does Sue deal with that roller coaster of emotions?

“You take it one day at a time,” she said. “And it is a sport you can go low very quickly, as we saw with Emily certainly in Pyeongchang. … You have to know your athlete and how they deal with the difficulties when it is down and give them the space to work through it, but still be there and make sure that they know that you’re there.”

As for Luge Dads, there isn’t a formal group right now, but they have just as much fun at the finish line, on trips to Europe and watching World Cup races on their laptops in the middle of the night.

As for the Luge Moms, they’re planning another trip — possibly to Mount Pisgah in Saranac Lake, where they will try their hand at inner tubing.