USA Luge in Germany, ready for World Cup season opener
USA Luge had a breakout season last winter, winning a team-record 18 medals on the World Cup circuit.
Of those, only three came in Europe.
Winning on familiar tracks in the U.S. and Canada was an important and considerable step forward for the program - and now the Americans are hoping some of that success can be enjoyed more frequently on the other side of the Atlantic. The first chance at that comes Saturday, when the World Cup season opens in Altenberg, Germany.
''Our team had a lot of success in North America last year,'' U.S. men's veteran Chris Mazdzer said. ''We almost had a lot of success in Europe. We had a lot of fourth-place finishes. We were really close to medaling a lot of times ... and the goal is to take those fourth places and try to climb one or two spots on the ladder.''
Mazdzer had two of those three World Cup medals from European stops last season, including a silver in Winterberg in the circuit's finale. That marked the third straight year of USA Luge leaving Winterberg with a medal, after Tucker West took bronze in the 2014-15 season and the Americans took silver in the team relay in 2013-14.
Traditionally, German tracks haven't been particularly kind to the Americans. They're hoping the trend of success in Winterberg continues this weekend.
''We're crossing our fingers for nice weather,'' said Erin Hamlin, the former women's world champion and the 2014 Olympic bronze medalist at the Sochi Games. ''But other than that, it's keeping things rolling in the same direction they've been going, getting equipment dialed in and staying healthy. And for me, enjoying it and getting the season started.''
Winterberg is the lone stop on this European trip, before the circuit comes back to the tracks the Americans know best.
After this weekend, the next three World Cups are in Lake Placid, New York; Whistler, British Columbia; and Park City, Utah. On the two American tracks last season, the U.S. won 11 medals.
So some early success could lead to plenty of momentum, as sliders start really ramping up for the 2018 Olympics in South Korea.
''Everyone starting right now is thinking Olympics, how to get there and how to be the best for that time,'' Mazdzer said. ''So even though, yes, there's World Cups every week, I think a lot of people are on an Olympic mindset. A lot of important decisions are going to be made in the next year and a half, and we're going to have to push each other to be the best possible.''
That being said, the U.S. might not be at its best this weekend health-wise, particularly on the women's side.
Emily Sweeney has been dealing with a wrist issue that is impeding the way she starts races - and the start is critical in luge, though she still won some preseason races despite the injury. Summer Britcher, who was fifth and one spot behind Hamlin in the overall women's World Cup points standings last season, has been slowed by a shoulder problem.
''I don't know about Summer, but for myself, I'm not expecting a huge number,'' Sweeney said. ''I'd be happy with something less than what I would be expecting if I was healthy. For now, it's more about just getting into that race atmosphere and feeling like the season is finally here.''