IGLS, Austria - Some rest and relaxation in the spring, an off-season of physical training, pulling starts on indoor ice from June to September, back on the outdoor ice in Lake Placid in October, and 10 days on the new Olympic track in Sochi, Russia to begin November.
It all leads to this Tyrolean village outside two-time Winter Olympic and Youth Olympic Games host, Innsbruck, and the beginning of the 2012-2013 World Cup luge campaign.
The schedule includes nine World Cup stops, with six team relay races. This event is among the additions to the 2014 Sochi Olympic program. The season’s highlight will occur on the 2010 Olympic course: Whistler, B.C., Canada will conduct the 2013 World Championships Feb. 2-3.
When the United States Luge Team hits the ice this week, they will do so with the intention of helping change the competitive paradigm. The federation will debut their new race suits, designed by Valiant Entertainment, in their X-O Manowar motif. X-O Manowar is one of the Valiant Universes’ leading superheroes, and one of the most popular comic book characters in the comic book market today.
Certainly Germany is at the head of the field, but the sleds in their rear-view mirror seem to be closer.
Russia’s Tatiana Ivanova, the 2012 World Championship silver medalist, and Canadian Alex Gough, a two-time World Cup race winner, have wedged themselves onto the podium several times with Germans Tatyana Huefner, the 2010 Olympic champion and five-time World Cup overall queen, and Natalie Geisenberger, the Olympic bronze medal winner who grabbed three race victories last winter.
U.S. luger Erin Hamlin, the 2009 World Champion who has also recorded six World Cup bronze medals, has intentions of crowding the podium, as she did in Igls in 2010.
"For the women, Igls is the closest racing," said Hamlin, who turned 26 on Monday. "Fast times here are (around) 39 seconds. This is definitely the shortest track we have and definitely the easiest. You don’t have high speeds. There are only three curves that have quick combinations. There’s really nothing too crazy."
Hamlin will be joined by Julia Clukey. The Augusta, Maine athlete is making a steady return from Arnold-Chiari Syndrome and knee surgery. She captured the Norton National title last month.
The team’s most recent addition to the Army’s World Class Athlete Program, Emily Sweeney, of Suffield, Conn. and Kate Hansen, of La Canada, Calif. will also be in the U.S. lineup this weekend.
Felix Loch of Germany is the athlete the men’s circuit watches. The three-time World Champion and Vancouver Olympic gold medalist has plenty of backup help in the form of Andi Langenhan, David Moeller, Johannes Ludwig and Ralf Palik.
Aging stars Armin Zoeggeler and Albert Demschenko were successful, however, in making in-roads at last year’s World Championships on German ice. Demschenko slid to the silver medal, while Zoeggeler, who will turn 39 in January, grabbed the bronze.
American Chris Mazdzer, 24, competed in that race and will try to forge his way up the rankings. The resident of Saranac Lake, N.Y. has a career-best 13th on his resume, which occurred at the Vancouver Games.
"Today was a good introduction to Igls where it’s a little bumpier and completely different than a lot of other tracks," said Mazdzer. "I took two runs and now will be ready for how Igls is built. There could be a lot of time just in the preparation of the track."
Mazdzer spent time earlier this fall testing equipment, and felt he was making progress.
"We were trying lots of really good things in the beginning of the season. So I wish we had a little more time before the World Cups. But I’m always looking forward to the competitive season."
The youth of Mazdzer notwithstanding, behind him are teenagers. At the moment, the best of the rest is Tucker West. The Ridgefield, Conn. athlete, at 17, is getting bigger, stronger and faster. West was part of a gold medal effort at last year’s Youth Olympic Games. He and Mazdzer shared this year’s Norton National Championships in a remarkable four-heat race.
West is being chased by Aidan Kelly, 18, of West Islip, N.Y. and Taylor Morris, 22, of South Jordan, Utah. Both have promise and now need to observe the best sliders, gain experience and continue improving.
The talk of doubles racing in recent seasons has been the Austrian brother tandem of Andreas and Wolfgang Linger. Their resumes are complete with two Olympic gold medals, three World Championships and finally an overall World Cup title in 2011-2012.
A year ago, the Lingers posted three wins and slipped by Germans Tobias Wendl and Tobias Arlt by just 10 World Cup points. Wendl and Arlt also posted three victories, while Peter Penz and Georg Fischler, another Austrian duo, opened and closed the season with wins. This is what awaits three talented American sleds, although one of them will be sidelined until January.
Christian Niccum, of Woodinville, Wash. and Jayson Terdiman, of Berwick, Pa. finished seventh in the World Cup standings. The 34 year old Niccum then had a second back surgery in April and has made progress in his rehabilitation. The two-time Olympian hopes to be cleared for on-ice training in December, leading to a season debut with Terdiman in January.
There are no such physical issues with Army Staff Sergeants Matt Mortensen and Preston Griffall. Unlike a year ago when they were in boot camp, these members of the Army’s WCAP had a full off-season of luge training. They are strong at the start, and now seek a level of consistency that will make them contend more often.
Mortensen and Griffall also got several looks at the Igls layout on Tuesday.
"The track isn’t in the best shape we’ve seen it, but we’ve only had two runs," said Griffall, the back driver and 2006 Olympian. "It’ll take a couple of more runs to get used to it.
"(Igls) is completely different than the other tracks. The profiles of the turns don’t go as vertical so it’s a different feeling. After a few more runs, we’ll be good to go."
Mortensen, of Huntington Station, N.Y. and Griffall, of Salt Lake City, Utah have been as good as fifth and sixth in World Cup races, and enter the new campaign after finishing ninth last winter.
They will engage an Igls course that, as Hamlin alluded, requires doing less to achieve more.
"You just float along on this track," said Mortensen. "Today it felt like there was no pressure in the turns.
"Everybody makes it down here. It’s getting down fast that’s the hard part."
World Cup newcomers Jake Hyrns, of Muskegon, Mich. and Andrew Sherk, of Fort Washington, Pa. complete the U.S. roster. After being a dominant doubles sled in the junior World Cup ranks, Hyrns and Sherk got a taste of the major leagues for the first time last December in Calgary. Their next start, however, in Koenigssee, Germany was their last for the year. A training run crash resulted in a wrist injury to Hyrns and a slight concussion to Sherk, thus sidelining them for the remainder of the season.
A total of nine World Cup stops are included in 2012-2013, with six team relay events. Germany was the tour champion last year, with Russia, Austria, Italy, Canada and the U.S. all winning medals in recent seasons.
The countdown to Sochi has just 15 months. It has included a 2012 international training week and a season ending 2013 World Cup on the 2014 Olympic course. Athletes will use this season to build momentum which they hope will carry them to success at Whistler, and ultimately, the host city on the Black Sea.
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Matt Mortensen/Preston Griffall