DAEGWALLYEONG, South Korea — Saranac Lake's Chris Mazdzer slid down a track slick with snow, through air so cold it hurt, and into the lights of the cameras stationed precisely to capture an iconic Olympic moment such as this. By the time the glaring lights hit him, he knew what the horde of American admirers draped over the fence knew: that he had become the first American man to win an Olympic medal in singles luge. He ended up with silver, just behind surprise winner, Austrian David Gleierscher. He would have taken any of them.
"It's crazy," Mazdzer said. "Everything's the same until you come up that fourth run ... you've been working your entire life for it. It's awesome to share that with everyone."
He tore off his facemask, forgot to undo his neckstrap, leaped off the track and hurtled around a volunteer toward his cheering section. Even on a snowy Sunday night that felt like five-below at its balmiest moments, that section was full of friends and family and teammates — including a few women's luge Olympians who chose to root him on wearing only sports bras during his first of two runs.
Women's luger Erin Hamlin, the American flag bearer in the Opening Ceremonies, brought a flag to Mazdzer's race Sunday, too. Hamlin became the first American woman to win a singles medal when she took bronze at Sochi four years ago.
When it was clear that Mazdzer had not only won a medal but won silver, aided by a stunning slip from reigning gold medalist and competition leader Felix Loch, Hamlin leaped over the track to celebrate with him.
Mazdzer's fellow singles racer Taylor Morris was waiting there, too, having passed on the opportunity to head inside a half-hour before. Some medals come with more than just a good individual story. Some can inspire a generation — or at least lift a sport from the realm of the "fun-to-watch" into something to believe in once in awhile.
"I would say that this will absolutely fire the kids up, whether or not they're in luge, to see someone who has dedicated their life to making this dream come true," said Morris, who was the second-best American finisher at 18th. "Just making Olympics is incredible enough. But to go up there and place on the podium and show you're one of the elite athletes in the world — that's just another level."
The charismatic Mazdzer had become something of a sensation, a cheerful, vocal veteran with a winning smile — and a physique that earned a tweet from "Saturday Night Live" star Leslie Jones on Saturday. But he was never supposed to be the one to end this drought. While the American men were expected to make something of a push for their first singles medal here, it was supposed to be former Union College student Tucker West — one of the fastest starters in the sport — who challenged the podium. West struggled all weekend, and did not qualify for the final run.
Mazdzer, meantime, had not even climbed a World Cup podium in two years. The 29-year-old is in his third Olympics, and finished 13th in Sochi. But he struggled lately, with equipment and confidence and everything in between. On Jan. 21, the active social media man posted a picture of himself looking distraught, followed by a few hundred words about his struggles.
"There is a light somewhere in this dark cave that I feel like I am stumbling through," said Mazdzer, who made some equipment changes that helped him to a better result in his last race before heading to Pyeongchang.
When he arrived, he saw some hope in the fact that he is one of the few sliders who favors these frigid conditions and this rock-hard ice. For two runs Saturday, he navigated the a track that terrorized many, finishing his first two runs in fourth place, not a tenth of a second off the podium. On Saturday night, still buzzing from the rush — and the caffeinated pre-workout drink he and his teammates take before races — he sat down and turned to Morris.
"He said, 'This is doable. I can do this,'" Morris said. "And I was like, 'You can absolutely do this.'"
Then he did. Propelled by what might just be the most pivotal run in the history of American men's luge — a near-perfect third run that vaulted him into podium position — Mazdzer outlasted a track that undid legends such as Loch and other favorites in the field. He finished three hundredths of a second away from the gold medal.
"I don't even care," said Mazdzer, who never stopped smiling as he marched through countless interviews in the freezing air, stopping to pump up a TV reporter who was shaking with the cold, hollering down the mountain at his friends, who had only recently stopped chanting "Four more years!" to tell them he would meet up with them later.
Just a few weeks ago, Mazdzer felt years and miles and a few thousand gallons of confidence from the last time he had climbed a medal podium. On that darkest of his luging days, he said, he could never have expected what was coming next.
"This," Mazdzer said. "is a blinding light at the end of the tunnel."