Lake Placid Nations Cup has Olympic significance

LAKE PLACID, N.Y. – Without putting a luge sled on the ice Thursday night in Lake Placid, Emily Sweeney and Summer Britcher joined Erin Hamlin on the 2018 United States Olympic team.

Remsen, N.Y. native Hamlin, the 2014 Olympic bronze medalist, sowed up her fourth Olympic spot with a World Cup fourth place last month, giving her A tier status; Britcher, of Glen Rock, Pa., headed to her second Games, had a World Cup bronze medal and a fifth place to lockup a pair of A tier qualifications; Sweeney, from Suffield, Conn., with two top tens, claimed two B tiers in the five-race fall series. She secured her first Olympic team berth, following in the footsteps of sister, Megan Sweeney, a Vancouver Olympian.

All nominations to the 2018 U.S. Olympic Team are subject to approval by the United States Olympic Team.

Instead of racing this weekend for their spots, the way the qualifying procedure tumbled down allowed them a stress-free experience. The three 2018 Olympic nominees watched the Nations Cup events from the sidelines on a cold night, as their A seed status allowed them to by-pass qualifying.

Only Raychel Germaine could have infiltrated that trio, looking to knock out Sweeney or Britcher. The Greenville, S.C. resident needed to advance out of Nations Cup qualifying and then score a top five in Saturday’s Viessmann World Cup. Germaine finished outside the qualifying group and did not move on.

The vagaries and unpredictability of cherished spots in South Korea came to the fore on the Mount Van Hoevenberg track.

John Fennell, one of three USA Luge men’s racers fighting for their lives, started his single-run Nations Cup qualifier with the fastest start time of 6.42 seconds, and he was in the top 10 at the 37 second split. It was important for Fennell, a dual citizen from Calgary, to advance to Friday afternoon’s World Cup race to keep his chances for a second Olympic appearance alive. He was on his way.

But with temperatures hovering just above zero, the brittle nature of the weather may have led to problems for Fennell as he broke a runner and finished his race with just one of his two sled runners, and both steels. To survive the run, he showed remarkable cool and skill, but the 21st place result wasn’t good enough.

Two others, Taylor Morris and Jonny Gustafson, responded to the pressure and advanced to the World Cup. Morris, of South Jordan, Utah, took a silver medal behind Russian Semen Pavlichenko, the 2015 World Champion, who lowered the track record. Gustafson, of Massena, N.Y., was eighth.

“This was probably the coldest, hardest ice we’ve had all year,” said Morris. “It was a lot to handle, but fortunately it’s a home track and we can feel comfortable and confident on it.

“You make small adjustments to the sled, making it a little sharper and little bit looser to handle the corners better. It’s more mental than physical.”

Sochi Olympian Tucker West, of Ridgefield, Conn., was fourth and two-time Olympian Chris Mazdzer, of Saranac Lake, N.Y., placed 12th.

West and Mazdzer achieved C tier Olympic qualifications earlier this season, turning the battle for the three men’s singles Olympic spots into a race within the race between Morris and Gustafson Friday afternoon, unless both can earn top five finishes. That A tier status would supersede all other tiers.

For example, if U.S. men finish 1-4, the fourth-place athlete would be eliminated. Failing a finish inside the top five for Morris and Gustafson, the final Olympic slot will be determined by Friday’s race result.

Two USA Luge doubles teams are similarly ensconced in a two-for-one battle Friday morning. Jake Hyrns, of Muskegon, Mich. and Anthony Espinoza, of Park City, Utah, raced into second place, just 0.003 of a second ahead of teammates Justin Krewson, of Eastport, N.Y. and Andrew Sherk, of Fort Washington, Pa., who were third.

“Everything from the start all the way to curve 11, even the exit of curve 11, was pretty good,” said Hyrns, who was in a similar situation four years ago in Park City, Utah. “But off curve 12 we got this kick in the back end of the sled, and sent us into a skid.”

“It took us all the way to the end of 13, but we got it back on track,” added Espinoza. “That’s an easy mistake to fix for tomorrow.”

They easily advanced to Friday morning’s World Cup event, placing 0.11 of a second behind Italian legends Christian Oberstolz and Patrick Gruber who won the competition.

Barring A tier finishes from these two U.S. teams, one of the two sleds will join Matt Mortensen, of Huntington Station, N.Y. and Jayson Terdiman, of Berwick, Pa. The top Americans, currently in the top-seeded doubles group, did not have to qualify and locked up their A tier with a pair of results in Europe. The highest ranked A tiers earn their trip to South Korea.

Now it’s on to two days of Viessmann World Cup racing and more Olympic drama, starting at 10 AM Friday with doubles and men’s singles. By the end of the day, the 10-member USA Luge athlete contingent will be identified.

The weekend concludes on Saturday at 9:30 AM with women’s singles, followed by the BMW Sprint World Cup.

Luge fans will be able to watch live coverage from Lake Placid Friday and Saturday on NBC Sports Network, partnering with USA Luge, the NY Olympic Regional Development Authority, the FIL and Carr-Hughes Productions, will broadcast on Dec. 17 from 7-9 PM ET.