Mazdzer comes back from abyss to claim silver: Medal is first for US in men’s luge

Mazdzer comes back from abyss to claim silver: Medal is first for US in men\'s luge
Luge Men’s Singles Run 4 Results Detail | NBC Olympics
nPYEONGCHANG, South Korea — The Russians aren’t quite as evil as they’ve been made out to be.

A Russian luger offered Chris Mazdzer his sled last month, hoping it might help the American break out of his slump.

Chris Mazdzer (left), David Gleirscher (middle) and Johannes Ludwig react after watching Felix Loch’s final run and realizing they reached the medal podium in Sunday’s men’s singles luge event. Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesFacebookTwitterFacebook MessengerEmailcommentFeb 12, 2018Dotun AkintoyeESPN The Magazine CloseDotun Akintoye is a writer and associate editor at ESPN The Magazine.Follow on TwitterFacebookTwitterFacebook MessengerPinterestEmailprintcommentPYEONGCHANG, South Korea — The small but lively crowd turned what should have been a predictable event into an everyone-roots-for-everyone affair.
Luge Men's Singles Run 4 Results Detail | NBC Olympics
Luge Men’s Singles Run 4 Results Detail | NBC Olympics

“He didn’t think he was going to the Olympics, and he wanted to see what someone could do on his sled,” the newly minted silver medalist said Monday.

And then there was Felix Loch, the youngest world champion and Olympic gold medalist in the history of men’s singles luge and the two-time defending Olympic gold medalist. After skidding on the track and glancing off the wall during his fourth and final run in the singles event Sunday, he lost precious time. Tumbling from first place to fifth, he sat stunned on his sled just past the finish line, holding and shaking his head.

“It was a legitimate sled,” Mazdzer added. “It wasn’t, `We’ll give you a sled and it’s like something that’s 20 years old.’ This was what they were using this year.”

Mazdzer, for his part, went from finishing 13th in back-to-back Olympics, to making history by becoming the first American to win a medal in men’s singles luge, helped by a track-record time of 47.534 seconds on his third run. Mazdzer’s final slide guaranteed him a medal, finishing second in 3:10.728. He also matched the best finish for USA Luge in any event at the Olympics (the Americans have been second in doubles twice).

MORE: USA’s silver medalist Chris Mazdzer dreamed about it and called his shot

Sochi 2014 Singles men - Olympic Luge
Sochi 2014 Singles men – Olympic Luge

MORE: Luge fans rooting on Chris Mazdzer create a stir in their USA sports bras

Felix Loch fell short in his bid to match Georg Hackl’s record in winning three consecutive Olympic luge gold medals. Eric Seals-USA TODAY SportsThe headlines are now dominated by three unlikely men: Austria’s David Gleirscher, the USA’s Chris Mazdzer and Germany’s Johannes Ludwig, who won gold, silver and bronze, respectively.
Vancouver 2010 Singles men - Olympic Luge
Vancouver 2010 Singles men – Olympic Luge

Mazdzer didn’t want to name the Russian — consorting with the Americans is not something one brags about these days — but did say he was at the Pyeongchang Olympics.

Chris Mazdzer locked up Team USA’s first medal in Olympic luge, taking home silver in the men’s singles event. AP Photo/Michael SohnIt was easy to see that comradery in the postrace news conference, with the three medalists smiling between questions, all giddy and loquacious, and looking ready to pinch themselves.

Russia is something of a dirty word here after the country was banned as punishment for a widespread, state-sponsored doping program. The IOC did allow Russian athletes who could prove they were clean to compete, and 168 athletes are here as Olympic Athletes from Russia.

On a night when the air (minus-11 Celsius) was colder than the luge track’s ice (minus-10), fan shouts of “USA! USA!” erupted from Americans, Germans, Koreans and everyone in between. Lugers from around the world gave each other high-fives and hugs, whether they had won a medal or not.

Chris Mazdzer’s historic US silver medal represents everything good about Olympics

“I guess this goes against every US-Russian stereotype ever,” Mazdzer said before telling the story of the loaner sled.

As far as I can tell, there are three main factors that make a sport inaccessible. The first is money, the second is geography, and the third is popularity. Money is self-explanatory, and you can see the effects in the demographic differences across the American professional ranks between a sport like basketball and sports like golf or lacrosse. It takes money to play lacrosse or golf, and so the professionals in those sports are inevitably richer—which, in America, means whiter—than other sports. Geography is also self-explanatory. If you're born in Texas, even if you're rich, it's less likely that you'll take up ice hockey. And popularity is the last limiter, and could be renamed "desirability." I grew up in a winter Olympic haven, and my parents were middle class, but it never occurred to me to take up something like bobsled. It's barely ever on TV, nobody thinks it's cool, and the athletes aren't famous. I probably could have, if I'd ever asked, and while I won't pretend for a second that I would have been any good at it, I use myself as an example of the limits of the sport itself. I grew up next door to a bobsled hotspot, and I still have no idea how somebody gets into a sport like that. But I do know you have to seek it out specifically, because it will not come to you.

The Winter Olympics are amazing, but also a shining beacon of sports privilege

Before becoming the first American man to win a medal in luge, Mazdzer was going through a terrible slump. He hadn’t been on a podium since the 2015-16 season, and hadn’t cracked the top five in a singles race yet this season.

Roland Harrison11th February 2018, Pyeongchang, South Korea; 2018 Winter Olympic Games; Olympic Sliding Centre; Chris Mazdzer (USA) prepares to start his Run 3 of the Mens Singles Luge (Photo by Roland Harrison/Action Plus via Getty Images)I grew up in Saranac Lake, NY, a small and extremely cold town of about 5,000 people in the Adirondack Mountains just south of the Canadian border. We have three claims to fame. First, the cold—there are plenty of days in each year when a brutal combination of latitude and altitude make us the coldest town in America, and we get our name on TV on the morning shows. Second, the mountain air is so pure that people used to come stay in cabins to cure themselves of tuberculosis. Third, we are ten miles away from Lake Placid, NY, an even smaller town that has played host to two Olympic games in 1932 and 1980, the latter of which famously included the Miracle on Ice game.

“Other countries and athletes noticed I wasn’t doing well and they didn’t know why either, and they actually tried to help me out,” he said.

This past weekend, a 29-year-old named Chris Mazdzer won a silver medal in luge singles, marking the first time an American had taken a medal in that discipline. Speaking as an Olympic fanatic who makes viewing spreadsheets and goes full curling fanatic and devises weird pools around the games, it was awesome. I was streaming it live Saturday morning when the announcer said he was from Saranac Lake, NY. I had no idea! It would have been easy for me to miss, since I live in North Carolina now, but it still gave me a little hometown thrill. Here's something even more remarkable: At the same time that Mazdzer was winning his silver, another Saranac Lake native—one I played basketball with—was competing in the men's biathlon 10km sprint. In the last few Olympics before this one, there was another Saranac Laker in ski jumping and nordic combined.

While he was in Latvia for the World Cup there, Jan. 27-28, Mazdzer was told that the Russian wanted to offer up his sled. Mazdzer was shocked — and not simply because of who made the offer.

“Organizations, countries will spend millions of dollars on developing luge sleds. The most bad-ass Flexible Flyers you can imagine,” Mazdzer said. “As an athlete, yeah, you want to hold onto whatever competitive advantage you can get.”

So let's come back to luge. In order to be good at luge, you have to train at special facilities, which costs money—Mazdzer went to the National Sports Academy for high school in Lake Placid, a private school where I assume luge was his primary focus. Almost every obscure winter sport athlete from America either comes from reasonable wealth or found a benefactor. (Mazdzer's dad is a neurologist, while his teammate Tucker West's father is a wealthy entrepreneur who built him his own track at home.) It's limited by geography, because you're not going to take up luge in a hotter climate. And it's limited by popularity, because what kid would want to take up luge?

He can only remember one other instance of a luger using someone else’s sled, and that was completely by accident. Italy has two Fischnallers on its team, cousins Dominik and Kevin, and coaches once mixed up their sleds.

“To go cross countries,” Mazdzer said, “it’s never happened.”

Mazdzer took the Russian’s sled for a run in Latvia but said he was too big for it to be a realistic option for him.

“I trained with this kid every single day,” USA Luge teammate Taylor Morris told the Associated Press, who was 18th in his Olympic debut. “Day-in, day-out, he is an animal. And it is paying off. A silver medal, just a few hundredths out from being an Olympic champion. That’s just the mental and physical resiliency that he has and it just shows that hard work does pay off and dreaming big and never setting a ceiling for yourself, it pays off.”

Wind, ice and cold are making this Olympics too wintry

“I think what it shows is that we do care about each other and there is this human connection we have that crosses countries, crosses cultures,” Mazdzer said, “and sport is an amazing way to accomplish that.”

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — The Russians aren’t quite as evil as they’ve been made out to be.

A Russian luger offered Chris Mazdzer his sled last month, hoping it might help the American break out of his slump.

Saranac Lakers thrilled as Chris Mazdzer earns silver

“He didn’t think he was going to the Olympics, and he wanted to see what someone could do on his sled,” the newly minted silver medalist said Monday.

Americans have won silver in doubles Luge before. The only other USA Luge singles medal at an Olympics came four years ago, when Erin Hamlin became the first woman winning bronze at the Sochi Games. Mazdzer and Hamlin have been teammates for years, and Mazdzer has spent some offseason time over the years staying with her brother Ryan in Utah.

“It was a legitimate sled,” Mazdzer added. “It wasn’t, `We’ll give you a sled and it’s like something that’s 20 years old.’ This was what they were using this year.”

“When we started training, I wasn’t that far behind some of the guys,” a teenage Mazdzer said. “I was actually right up there with them, dead-even with them. That was a big motivating boost for me. I just said, `What the heck, let’s try to make the senior team, let’s go for the Olympics if I’m right up with these guys here in Placid.’

MORE: USA’s silver medalist Chris Mazdzer dreamed about it and called his shot

PYEONGCHANG-GUN, SOUTH KOREA – FEBRUARY 11: Chris Mazdzer of the United States celebrates winning the silver medal following run 4 during the Luge Men’s Singles on day two of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games at Olympic Sliding Centre on February 11, 2018 in Pyeongchang-gun, South Korea.

MORE: Luge fans rooting on Chris Mazdzer create a stir in their USA sports bras

Mazdzer didn’t want to name the Russian — consorting with the Americans is not something one brags about these days — but did say he was at the Pyeongchang Olympics.

Russia is something of a dirty word here after the country was banned as punishment for a widespread, state-sponsored doping program. The IOC did allow Russian athletes who could prove they were clean to compete, and 168 athletes are here as Olympic Athletes from Russia.

“I guess this goes against every US-Russian stereotype ever,” Mazdzer said before telling the story of the loaner sled.

Before becoming the first American man to win a medal in luge, Mazdzer was going through a terrible slump. He hadn’t been on a podium since the 2015-16 season, and hadn’t cracked the top five in a singles race yet this season.

Kiszla: He’s a luger, baby. How silver medalist Chris Mazdzer became America’s newest sex symbol.

“Other countries and athletes noticed I wasn’t doing well and they didn’t know why either, and they actually tried to help me out,” he said.

While he was in Latvia for the World Cup there, Jan. 27-28, Mazdzer was told that the Russian wanted to offer up his sled. Mazdzer was shocked — and not simply because of who made the offer.

“Organizations, countries will spend millions of dollars on developing luge sleds. The most bad-ass Flexible Flyers you can imagine,” Mazdzer said. “As an athlete, yeah, you want to hold onto whatever competitive advantage you can get.”

He can only remember one other instance of a luger using someone else’s sled, and that was completely by accident. Italy has two Fischnallers on its team, cousins Dominik and Kevin, and coaches once mixed up their sleds.

“To go cross countries,” Mazdzer said, “it’s never happened.”

Mazdzer took the Russian’s sled for a run in Latvia but said he was too big for it to be a realistic option for him.

“I think what it shows is that we do care about each other and there is this human connection we have that crosses countries, crosses cultures,” Mazdzer said, “and sport is an amazing way to accomplish that.”


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