IGLS, Austria - Julia Clukey’s return to elite level luge racing took another step forward Saturday as the Augusta, Maine athlete used the best starts of the women’s race and finished sixth in the warm, sun-splashed World Cup opener in the Tyrolean Alps.
Clukey has been mostly absent from World Cup competition the past two seasons due to the effects and eventual surgery to address Arnold-Chiari Syndrome. The 2010 Olympian also surgically corrected a knee issue during that time. This was her fifth best international career result after a fourth in a Lake Placid, N.Y. World Cup, fifth in the 2009 World Championships, also in Lake Placid, fifth in a Koenigssee, Germany World Cup and fifth in a Park City, Utah World Cup. She recently captured the Norton National Championships in Lake Placid.
"My first run, I was a little too tense....a little nervous, I guess," Clukey said. "It didn’t feel very fluid. But I was really happy with my second run and tried to carry speed down the track. There were small things both runs, but that’s Igls."
In the doubles race, the United States duo of Matt Mortensen and Preston Griffall inched up from 12th place at the intermission to take 10th. Their two heats were 0.6 of a second from German winners Tobias Wendl and Tobias Arlt.
The women’s event was surprising on several fronts: five-time World Cup overall winner and 2010 Olympic champion Tatjana Huefner, of Germany did not take a medal; her teammate Anke Wischnewski, 34, won her first race in eight years and established a track record despite slow starts; Russian Tatiana Ivanova, a 2012 World Cup winner and 2012 World Championship silver medalist, had problems in the lower section during the second and final heat to place behind Clukey; American Erin Hamlin, 16th after one run, staged a significant rally in the second leg to improve five spots to 11th.
Wischnewski’s times down the short Igls course, used during the 1964 and 1976 Innsbruck Winter Games, were 39.875 (track record) and 39.961 seconds for a combined one minute, 19.863 seconds. That was .07 of a second faster than runner-up Natalie Geisenberger. Canadian Alex Gough took the bronze, one day after setting the course record that Wischnewski broke. A two-time World Cup winner, Gough clocked 1:19.988.
Huefner took fourth place; 2012 World Junior Champion Aileen Fritsch finished fifth; and Clukey was next in 1:20.410.
"In the first run I fell into my old habits of trying to control the sled," continued Clukey. "I’m constantly working on that.....in letting the sled run and finding the speed that I create for myself at the start. So I reset in the second run and went back to what I’ve been focusing on in my training."
Overall, though, it was successful opening day.
"I feel healthy, in good shape and strong," Clukey concluded, who, along with her teammates, debuted their new Valiant Entertainment/X-O Manowar race suits.
2009 World Champion Hamlin, from Remsen, N.Y., was timed in 1:20.559. Kate Hansen, the 2008 World Junior Champion from La Canada, Calif., wound up 23rd in 1:21.121.
Emily Sweeney, of Suffield, Conn., did not qualify in Friday’s single heat Nations Cup event. The new member of the National Guard suffered an ankle injury while training earlier this month in Sochi, Russia. She returned to sliding this week in Igls.
As was the case in the women’s race, Germany finished 1-2 in doubles as Wendl and Arlt overcame the track record of teammates Toni Eggert and Sascha Benecken, to post their 11th career World Cup win. Austrians Peter Penz and Georg Fischler, triumphant here a year ago, took bronze on home ice.
Andreas and Wolfgang Linger, the Austrian brothers who are the two-time Olympic gold medal winners and three-time World Champions, settled for fourth place as they opened defense of their World Cup overall championship.
The German winners put down runs of 39.709 and 39.755 for a total of 1:19.464. Eggert and Benecken were over 0.3 of a second in arrears in 1:19.497.
Penz and Fischler finished third in 1:19.569.
Mortensen, of Huntington Station, N.Y. and Griffall, of Salt Lake City, Utah, placed 10th in 1:20.075.
There were no other U.S. sleds in the doubles field as Jake Hyrns, of Muskegon, Mich. and Andrew Sherk, of Fort Washington, Pa., did not advance through Friday’s Nations Cup race.
A third doubles team, Christian Niccum, of Woodinville, Wash. and Jayson Terdiman, of Berwick, Pa., is sidelined until January as Niccum progresses through rehabilitation after back surgery last spring.
The Igls World Cup program concludes Sunday with men’s singles and the team relay, which is among the new Olympic events scheduled for Sochi, Russia.
Complete Julia Clukey interview here
Complete doubles results here
Complete women’s results here