Tucker West is going to South Korea this winter.
Term abroad for the Union College sophomore? Not exactly: The 22-year-old from Ridgefield, Ct., will be a part of the US Luge team in the Winter Olympic Games set for PyeongChang in February.
This will be the second Olympics for West. The youngest member of the luge team four years ago, he finished 22nd in the men’s singles event at Sochi Russia.
It should be different this time, he believes.
“The last time, I was there for the experience. This time I am shooting for a medal.”
This is not an unrealistic goal. Since the last Olympics, West has won three World Cup events and last weekend he was third in the men’s singles competition at Lake Placid. Recently he has been climbing in the luge standings after a difficult early season start. He is now ranked 9th in the world with six more World Cup events on the schedule after the Christmas break..
While international level winter sports athletes get a lot of public attention elsewhere, especially in Europe, those who represent the US in many of those sports go unrecognized in this country. Once every four years, the Olympic
Games can change that a bit if a medal is involved. Ask Bill Demong who grew up in Vermontville near Lake Placid when he won gold in the Nordic Combined competition in 2010. He is hardly a household name even now, but he did bring never-been-seen-before attention to himself and his sport eight years ago.
West became interested in luge when he watched TV coverage of the sport back in 2002 and that enthusiasm led to the building of 750-foot long wood frame track on the family’s property in Connecticut. He came to Lake Placid as part of the Luge Association’s development program in 2010 and he has been a part of the action ever since.
Luge first became a part of the Winter Olympics’ menu in 1964. There is singles competition for men and women and mens’ doubles. Unlike bobsled, where driver and pusher are seated in a sled, luge athletes slide on their back, feet first. In the similar skeleton sled event, participants race down the iced track head first.
This sport is very similar to what generations of children have done on snow-covered hills for years. But it was in preparation for the 1980 Winter Olympics that the first international luge competition track was built in the U.S. in Lake Placid. The track was rebuilt to its current configuration in 1999 and there are now other competition tracks in North America at Salt Lake City and Calgary and Vancouver in Canada.
For many years the U.S. was an also-ran in the sport. That changed in 1998 when the doubles team of Gordy Sheer and Chris Thorpe won the silver medal and Mark Grimnette and Brian Martin won bronze in the games at Nagano, Japan. Since then the U.S. has been competitive internationally. Erin Hamlin from Remsen, outside Utica, won a bronze medal in women’s singles at the Sochi games. She is back again this winter, as is Chris Mazdzer from Saranac Lake who, like West, has had some international success in the past.
No American, however, has won an Olympic medal in men’s singles.
West thinks he can change that, even though his spot on the team wasn’t certain until last weekend.
“The medal result was a huge confidence builder for me.” he said after the comp‑etition last Friday. “With the pressure of making the team gone now, I can concentrate on the Olympics”
In a sport where the first meters on the approximately 1300-meter track is considered very important to a good performance, West is already considered one of the best starters in the international field. He had the fastest times last weekend at Lake Placid.
He knows what else he needs to do for a medal.
“I need four clean runs.”
While about the same length and with the same features, all luge tracks are a little different. The athlete must make subtle adjustments all along the run to preserve speed and avoid bumping walls, where even the slightest touch can cost time in this event, one of just two in the Olympics that is measured in 1,000th of a second intervals. (Short track speed skating is the other.)
PyeongChang is considered a “technical track,” which means greater driving challenges for the athletes. Familiarity with the layout helps. West and his teammates had one World Cup competition on the Olympic track last winter and the U.S. team trained there this fall. They will have a few days of practice before the Olympic event.
A key may be “Curve 9” which dominates the conversation about this Olympic run. The curve is such that racers have to hold their line longer and be careful not to be thrown to a side wall when coming out of the turn. Expect to hear a lot about Curve 9 when watching the sliding sports at the games.
In the past year, West has focused on luge training and competition. Previously he had returned to the Union campus for classes in the spring. The college academic term schedule makes Union an attractive option for winter sports athletes. West is not sure right now what his plans are for right after the Games.
But he’s just 22 years old, and while he will be a two-time Olympian this winter, he is much younger than past stars of the sport such as Armin Zoeggler of Italy and Georg Hackl of Germany, both former Olympic champions who competed successfully throughout their 30s.
The Winter Olympics will be Feb.9 through Feb 25. West’s men’s singles event will be Feb. 10-11.
The Section II Alpine season gets underway next Thursday with the Johnstown Xmas race at Royal Mountain. Queensbury and Shenendehowa are expected to compete for team honors this winter.
Jim Blaise is closing in on his 50th season as owner of Royal Mountain and as in the past, he will operate his normally weekends-only area on a daily basis through New Years’ day. A flexible ticket for any five days during the period is $125.
The new Summit Lodge at Gore opened last weekend. Located next to the top of the Straightbrook chairlift, this is a full renovation of the old Gore Gondola terminal and features some of the old bullwheel hardware. It is a welcome addition to the ski area, especially on cold mornings like last Sunday.
Good holiday sliding to all.
Daily Gazette ski writer Phil Johnson can be reached at [email protected].