Relay bronze for U.S. lugers, Britcher gets Olympic nod

Team USA’s Summer Britcher smiles after finishing in the World Cup racing in Winterberg, Germany on Sunday, Jan. 2. (Provided photo — Courtesy FIL/Galinovskis)

U.S. luge racers were pumping their fists on the podium Sunday, Jan. 2, in Winterberg, Germany.

They had just taken third place in the team relay, behind Latvia and Austria, and defeated the mighty Germans on their home track. One of the four teammates, Summer Britcher of Pennsylvania and Lake Placid, had also just become the first American luger to guarantee a spot in the Olympics next month in Beijing.

It was a rousing way for them to prepare for the crucial coming weekend in Sigulda, Latvia, which will determine the rest of the U.S. Olympic luge team. USA Luge plans to announce its Olympic team Monday, Jan. 10.

Winterburg was nothing like a winter wonderland, with rain and temperatures in the 40s and 50s. Britcher took fifth place Sunday, which was enough to confirm her Olympic pre-qualification from last year, but the U.S. men’s singles and doubles teams posted disappointing results Saturday, especially since they need to step it up to secure their full complement of Olympic slots.

They dialed it in for the team relay, however.

From left, Team Austria, Team Latvia and Team USA stand atop the team relay podium in Winterberg, Germany on Sunday, Jan. 2. (Provided photo — Courtesy FIL/Galinovskis)

“We always race really well together,” Britcher said. “This is a great team. Happy to have a good result to end a tough week here in Winterberg with some bad conditions.”

“We can go fast. It’s there,” said Chris Mazdzer, who grew up in Saranac Lake and now lives in Salt Lake City, Utah. He and doubles partner Jayson Terdiman of Lake Placid anchored the relay team, following Britcher and Tucker West in singles.

While Britcher is the only U.S. team member ranked in the top 10 in World Cup standings — she is seventh (of 59) — the U.S. relay team is now ranked third (of 14), behind Germany and Austria.

Women’s singles

Britcher said she was surprised by her top-five result. She didn’t think she was all that fast Sunday, but she was consistent. The result “just takes that stress off of my shoulders,” she said.

Emily Sweeney of Lake Placid is the only other U.S. racer with a top-five finish this season, putting her at Tier A in the three-level Olympic qualification system — the safest bet for the Olympics behind Britcher. Three U.S. women will go to Beijing, and Sweeney is ahead of Ashley Farquharson and Brittney Arndt of Park City, Utah. Farquharson has secured Tier B. Arndt had her best result yet Sunday, placing 12th, but she would need a strong result this weekend to beat Farquharson. Either would have to do extremely well to bump Sweeney.

Sweeney had two strong runs going Sunday until she ran into trouble at the bottom of the track, making a mistake late in her first run and crashing on the second. She was not hurt, according to USA Luge spokesperson Sandy Caligiore. That transition between curves 13 and 14 had been giving racers trouble all weekend. In both runs Sweeney was in second place at the last time check before the finish curves.

Germany’s Julia Taubitz continued her season-leading performance by winning gold Sunday, followed by Germany’s Natalie Geisenberger and Austria’s Madeleine Egle.

Men’s singles

Mazdzer is trying to qualify for the Olympics in singles as well as doubles, but he didn’t make any progress toward that goal this weekend. He finished 20th in singles Saturday. Tucker West of Connecticut and Lake Placid was 23rd, and Jonny Gustafson of Massena placed 28th.

West and Gustafson have secured Tier C, but Mazdzer needs another top-16 finish to get there. If they all do well enough to secure the U.S. a third Olympic berth, they will all race in Beijing. If not, one of them will stay home. That makes this weekend in Latvia a critical test.

Germany’s Johannes Ludwig claimed his fourth World Cup gold medal of the season, followed by Nico Gleirscher of Austria and Wolfgang Kindl of Austria.

Men’s doubles

USA Luge plans to hold a race-off this weekend in Sigulda between its three men’s doubles pairs. The fastest sled will claim what may well be the nation’s only Olympic doubles slot, unless its teams step up to qualify a second. None of the three U.S. pairs has claimed a qualifying tier so far, so the only way out of the race-off would be to finish in the top five — although Mazdzer and Terdiman could do it with a top-10.

Mazdzer and Terdiman turned their sled on its side at the beginning of their first run Saturday — they still finished, but at the back of the pack. Their second run was much better, the fourth fastest of the heat, moving them up to 16th place for the day.

“Another roller coaster weekend for Chris and myself,” Terdiman said Sunday. “Yesterday’s crash was very unfortunate, but we definitely had the speed and we’re looking forward to carrying this momentum into Sigulda and see where that puts us at the end of the Olympic selection process.”

Zach DiGregorio of Massachusetts and Sean Hollander of Lake Placid had almost as bad a first run Saturday, and their second wasn’t great, either. They finished 17th. The third U.S. team of Dana Kellogg of Massachusetts and Duncan Segger of Lake Placid did not do well enough in Friday’s Nation’s Cup to qualify for the World Cup race.

Tobias Wendl and Tobias Arlt of Germany took gold Saturday, followed by Thomas Steu and Lorenz Koller of Austria, and Yannick Mueller and Armin Frauscher of Austria. This season’s two top-ranked teams — Andris and Juris Sics of Latvia, and Toni Eggert and Sascha Benecken of Germany — crashed on the turn 13-14 combination that tripped up Sweeney.

Women’s doubles began as a World Cup event in December but needs more participating countries before it becomes an Olympic sport.

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