LAKE PLACID - When Tucker West captured the annual USA Luge Start Championship in 2011 at the age of 15, he was the youngest American to ever do so.
The Ridgefield, Conn. resident did it again Thursday, Sept. 27 at the national governing body's indoor refrigerated training center in Lake Placid. The competition tested start reaction to a gate that swung from closed to open to begin each heat.
The race concept was created by United States coaches to derive meaningful start information on each athlete. It is coincidental that the newest Olympic event, the team relay, will incorporate the same gate concept in Sochi, Russia 17 months from now.
For the second straight year, West, a 2012 Youth Olympic Games gold medalist, turned back a field that included 2010 Olympian Chris Mazdzer of Saranac Lake.
The winner had two runs down the national team start ramp that totaled 5.756 seconds.
"In the first run, I bumped the wall," West said. "But I cleaned it up in the second run. It was awesome.
"It's so exciting when you are sitting up there. It's scary (waiting for the gate to open). But when the gate opens it's game time."
Mazdzer, a perennially strong starter in his own right, was second in 5.826, with Nick Gerardi, of Queensbury, third in 5.913 as he makes his way back from injuries.
Mazdzer, 13th at the Vancouver Winter Olympics, said later that his reaction time in the first run was slow, and then he hugged the wall in the second run, hampering his paddling down the ramp.
Julia Clukey, of Augusta, Maine, continues her road back from surgery to address symptoms of Arnold-Chiari Syndrome in the spring of 2011. The Vancouver Olympian also has one of the fastest starts on the World Cup tour, and on Thursday, among her teammates, she showed a quick reaction to the start gate.
Clukey held off Kate Hansen, of La Canada, Calif. for the victory. Clukey grabbed a 0.03 of a second advantage in the first leg over the 2008 Junior World Champion and emerged with a slim 0.010 triumph.
The winner clocked 6.160 to Hansen's 6.170.
"The reaction added a little twist," Clukey said. "My starts have been good, and my testing went really well. I'm happy with the way the season is starting. I'm happy the power is back. I have to work on my reaction time, though."
Third place went to 2009 World Champion and two-time Olympian Erin Hamlin, of Remsen, in 6.197.
Emily Sweeney, of Suffield, Conn., the latest member of the Army's World Class Athlete Program, did not compete due to a shoulder injury suffered in a weightlifting session.
Doubles veterans Matt Mortensen and 2006 Olympian Preston Griffall, also members of the Army's World Class Athlete Program, dominated the field, and took the gold medal in 5.980 seconds.
Mortensen, of Huntington Station, and Griffall, of Salt Lake City, Utah, turned back Shane Hook, of Grapevine, Texas, and Zac Clark, of Salt Lake City. The runners-up were timed in 6.156.
"That particular reaction setup was new," said Mortensen. "Those not used to it on the World Cup were at a disadvantage. We shared our knowledge with them."
Weather-permitting, the team will hit the full track at Mount Van Hoevenberg on Oct. 15. When it does, Mortensen and Griffall will be the senior doubles team as the duo of two-time Olympian Christian Niccum, of Woodinville, Wash., and Jayson Terdiman, of Berwyck, Pa., are out of action until January as Niccum recovers from back surgery last spring.
"Training has gone well at the OTC (Olympic Training Center)," Mortensen said. "I've gained 12 pounds of muscle and become more explosive at the start. Now I don't have to wear additional weight.
"We have a new sled and will get it ready to go. These are very anxious moments heading into the season. We're dying to get on the ice and figure it all out. We really want to attack and rip from the start."
Junior standouts Jake Hyrns and Andrew Sherk, working their way back from a World Cup crash last January that took them out of competition the rest of the season, finished third in 6.289.
Over the next two weeks, the team will maintain its off-ice training schedule at the OTC, while also pulling starts at headquarters.
The first significant event of the fall season will be the 2012-2013 Norton National Championships Oct. 26-28 in Lake Placid.