Union College’s West is victorious at Luge World Cup

In the blink of an eye.
Union College student Tucker West wins the Luge World Cup men’s singles race last weekend in Lake Placid.
Union College student Tucker West wins the Luge World Cup men’s singles race last weekend in Lake Placid.

In the blink of an eye.
That was the margin of victory for Tucker West in the Luge World Cup men’s singles race last weekend at Lake Placid. His combined time was 1 minute, 43.088 seconds over two runs of the mile-long track at Mt. Vanhoevenberg.
That was six one-thousandths of a second faster that Russia’s Semen Pavlichenko, who finished in second place with a time of 1 minute, 43.094 seconds.
West, who is a sophomore at Union College now on leave from school while competing, understands his margin of victory.
“It was about one centi­meter”, he said after the race.
If he had been slower, say by the time it takes for the snap of a finger?
“I would not have won!”
Luge is one of those winter sports that flies under the public’s radar most of the time, except for once every four years when it is featured in the Olympics. Despite its relative anonymity, it is a simple sport to understand: Slide down a track on a sled, go back up the hill and slide down again. The person who does it fastest wins the race.
Yes, there are rules. Plenty of them. West ran afoul of one the week before when he was disqualified for being over the weight limit for his sled. But in this sport, there are no judges’ impressions or style points that count. Simply, the fastest sled wins the race which, along with speed skating, are the only Olympic competitions measured in thousands of a second.
West, who grew up in Ridgefield, Conn., chose to enroll at Union in part because of the college’s tri-mester academic calendar which is suited to his training and competition schedule. He is generally enrolled in classes in the spring term only.
When this world class athlete walks across campus, do his fellow students recognize him?
“Maybe the seniors who entered with me in 2013.”
And what about when you walk in downtown Schenectady?
“Not a chance.”
Luge became a Winter Olympic sport in 1964 and, for many years, U.S. competitors fared poorly. On the home track at Lake Placid in 1980, the best American finish was 12th place. Then, in 1998, Gordy Sheer and Chris Thorpe led the U.S. to a second- and third-place finish in the doubles event at Nagano, and Americans have been competitive internationally ever since. In 2014 at Sochi, Erin Hamlin from Remsen, near Utica, won a bronze medal in the women’s singles.
But no American has ever won an Olympic medal in men’s singles.
Right now, West, along with teammate Chris Mazdzer from Saranac Lake who finished fourth last week, are serious contenders to break that streak.
Despite being just 21 years old, West has a long history with luge. His introduction came from watching the sport during television coverage of the 2002 Salt Lake City games. He and dad Brett went out to the back yard and built a run complete with banks and curves. He was 6 years old at the time. Olympic medalist Sheer, then retired and working for the U.S. Luge Federation, read a newspaper story about West, his dad and the backyard track and contacted the family. Two years later, at age 8, Tucker took his first run on the Mt. VanHoevenberg track.
At 6-foot-1 and 180 pounds, with a willingness to put in the time for athletic success, West could have picked more conventional sports interests.
“I played some hockey and some baseball when I was younger,” he said. “But now, luge is my focus throughout the year.”
From summer through the winter racing season, West’s home base is the Olympic Training Center (OTC) at Lake Placid. There, he has the facilities and the coaching needed for international competition success.
Refrigeration allows for ice to be made on the track in the fall and, when not traveling, a week in West’s life involves sliding for four hours, 4-6 runs each morning, then lunch, then four hours in the training room at the OTC. Sliding fast is more complex than just showing up to race.
“I am sure that by now I have taken more than a thousand runs on the Lake Placid track,” West said. “It may look like we are just lying back and letting the sled run. But we are constantly making adjustments as we go, most of them while sliding at 60 miles an hour.”
West has been very successful on the Mt. VanHoevenberg home track. He won his first World Cup title there in 2014, finished second to teammate Mazdzer last year and in first place again last week. He holds the single run competition track record with a 51.002 time two years ago.
“Track familiarity is very important,” said West, who, when traveling on the World Cup circuit, usually sees a new run every week. “The more runs you have on a track, the better you are.”
So what about PyeongChang, South Korea, site of the 2018 Winter Games?
West and the other World Cup contenders will be sliding there in February for the first time on a new track, considered by the sliders as more wide open and relaxed than the tighter, more technical runs like Lake Placid.
So who will have the advantage in 2018?
“No one.” says West. “No one has any experience there.”
This will be West’s second Winter Olympics. He was 22nd last year at Sochi. With the World Cup victory last weekend, he knows he has qualified for the U.S. team in the World Cup racing series next year, and he is already a favorite to make the U.S. Team that will be going to South Korea next winter.
What then? West believes that you get better in the sport with age and experience. Two of the medalists in the men’s single event in Sochi were older than 40.
Union College, Class of 2025?
The Lapland Lake Nordic Center in Benson has been picked third on the list of Best Cross Country Ski Resorts in the nation, published by USA Today. The poll had readers select from a list of 20 areas nominated by a five member nationwide panel of experts. Lapland Lake was voted the top area in the Northeast. Others from the region that made the top 10 are Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe, Vt., Maine Huts and Trails in Kingfield, Maine and the Jackson Ski Touring Center in Jackson, N.H.
The Ski Vertical Challenge, commonly known as The Dew Tour, will make its only Eastern stop before the new year next Saturday at Okemo in Vermont. This is a free, family-oriented, on-snow event with prizes and refreshments for participants. Other events in this series in the northeast will be held in February and March.
Colder overnight temperatures this week have smaller areas in the region looking to open perhaps as early as this weekend. But be sure to call ahead or check on-line before heading to the hills. Certainly prospects for turns soon are better than a year ago when many areas did not open until after the New Year.
Phil Johnson can be reached at [email protected]

Categories: Sports

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