WHISTLER, B.C., Canada - The training sessions have concluded. The chatter of a new start height has now faded away. The best luge athletes in the world are ready for their Super Bowl weekend beginning Friday afternoon at Whistler-Blackcomb in British Columbia.
Other than the Olympic Games, there is no more important competition in this sport than the annual World Championships. The site at Whistler, two and half hours north of Vancouver, played host to the luge events during the 2010 Olympic Winter Games. Three years later, many of the same players have returned for this premier event.
Erin Hamlin won the world title in 2009 on her home course in Lake Placid. The two-time Olympian has had good training leading up to her race. After running the women’s and doubles races from the junior start during the Vancouver Games, creating an awkward entry into the course’s sixth turn, another start platform has been built.
"The new start is no problem at all," said the resident of Remsen, N.Y. "Leaps and bounds better than going into curve six, thankfully. It is now a straight, relatively steep ramp into the entrance of turn seven. It does cut the run time down to a short 37 seconds though, which is still pretty odd. I think I will always miss the original ladies start. But it is much better than the Olympic start height.
"Really all I have been doing is trying to get relaxed and do a little fine-tuning here and there. Because it is shorter and relatively easy now, it is all about the tiny details and finding time wherever you can. It is probably going to be a pretty tight race. But overall, I always love being in Whistler."
Hamlin and teammate Julia Clukey, of Augusta, Maine, give the United States two experienced hands in this event. Clukey has been sixth three times this season in the World Cup, and is in eighth place in the tour standings. That’s one point and one place behind Hamlin in the rankings.
On that day in Lake Placid four years ago, while Hamlin was being crowned World Champion, Clukey had an excellent fifth place performance, a career best for that event. She’s also been as high as fifth in World Cup racing. But since then, the 2010 Olympian has had knee surgery, followed by a skull procedure to relieve the symptoms created by Arnold-Chiari Syndrome.
Her recovery and return to elite level racing has been noteworthy. Clukey’s consistently fast start is now being matched by a more relaxed demeanor on the sled the rest of the way down the track.
"This is my first time here since the Games and I’m grateful for the extra runs," said Clukey. "This is going to be a close racing so I’m trying to find time in the runs and trying to maximize everything."
Emily Sweeney, of Suffield, Conn. the recently-crowned 2013 Junior World Champion, and Kate Hansen, of La Canada, Calif., the 2008 Junior World Champion, are in the U.S. lineup giving the women’s team good depth. Both have career best top ten results in the World Cup.
Chris Mazdzer and Taylor Morris will race for the American men. Mazdzer, of Saranac Lake, N.Y., was 13th at the Olympic Games here, while Morris, of South Jordan, Utah a member of the Army National Guard, continues to gain experience in his first full year on tour.
Earlier this month, Mazdzer scored a World Cup 12th place result, the best of his career. Prior to the final day of training on Thursday and after the Opening Ceremony in Whistler Village the prior evening, he looked back at the extensive training afforded here over the past two weeks.
"This is the most training we’ve had before a race," said Mazdzer. "The ice conditions are really good. I think everyone is ready to go. The competition should be close."
The U.S. brings two doubles teams to the World Championships with veterans Matt Mortensen, of Huntington Station, N.Y. and 2006 Olympian Preston Griffall, of Salt Lake City, Utah. Both are members of the Army National Guard’s World Class Athlete Program.
"Training has been good," said Griffall. "It’s a short track. This race will be a lot about the start and maintaining the speed from the start. Thirty six seconds is a short amount of time and you have to hold the speed. We’ve been here for a while and (now) looking forward to the start of the race."
Youngsters Jake Hyrns, of Muskegon, Mich. and Andrew Sherk, of Fort Washington, Pa. are racing in their first World Championships. Like Morris, this is their first full season competing at the sport’s highest level.
Racing begins Friday and Saturday at 5:45 PM Eastern Time both evenings. Doubles and men’s singles will be contested Friday. The event concludes Saturday with women’s singles and the team relay.
Follow the action with live timing and scoring on www.fil-luge.org.