A season of change for the three U.S. international sliding programs has arrived.
It’s an every-four-year reset.
The cycle never seems to differ much: In the season that follows an Olympics, the faces inside the helmets donned by the U.S. bobsled, skeleton and luge teams always change. The rule is holding true again this year. New World Cup seasons are set to begin, and 19 of the 30 sliders who represented the U.S. at the Pyeongchang Games nine months ago are either retired or taking time off.
So the process of getting ready for Beijing 2022 is beginning, with a whole lot of new faces.
“We have to build the house,” said USA Bobsled head coach Mike Kohn, who was promoted from an assistant in May. “You don’t start with the roof. You don’t put the bow on top of the house. You start with the foundation, and that’s things like love for each other and love for what we do. It’s grit, it’s resiliency and industriousness and enthusiasm. That’s our baseline.”
USA Luge will have five of its 10 Pyeongchang Olympians sliding this season, with the other five having retired — a list that notably includes two-time world champion and 2014 Sochi Olympics bronze medalist Erin Hamlin. USA Bobsled and Skeleton is dealing with massive amounts of turnover, with only six of the 20 athletes that federation sent to Korea in February back to start the 2018-19 campaign.
There are some veterans back in the red, white and blue this winter — including the only three sliders who brought home medals from Pyeongchang, men’s luge silver medalist Chris Mazdzer and the silver-medal-winning women’s bobsled team of Elana Meyers Taylor and Lauren Gibbs.
“For me, it’s been a bit of a struggle to find that same drive and motivation that you have when you’re four months out from the Olympics,” women’s Olympic luge veteran Summer Britcher said.
Her take is understandable: The first year of a new quadrennial can’t possibly replicate the buzz of an Olympic season. That’s not to say sliders aren’t taking this season seriously.
And there might not be a slider in the world with more on his plate this season than Mazdzer.
He’s going to double up this winter, competing in both men’s singles and then pairing with Jayson Terdiman in doubles. Mazdzer and Terdiman were a successful junior doubles team about a decade ago, and when Matt Mortensen — Terdiman’s most recent partner — decided to retire after Pyeongchang there was a very real chance that USA Luge wouldn’t have a doubles team in World Cup races.
So Mazdzer took on the task of doing both disciplines, something no luger has seriously tried in about 30 years.
“It is a fun, challenging journey, that is for sure,” Mazdzer said. “My personal goal is to medal in both disciplines in the same World Cup, world championships and ultimately in the Olympics. … This is a four-year goal, but we are doing a lot of work. It really is a four-year plan.”
USA Skeleton also had serious turnover.
Matt Antoine, a 2014 Olympic bronze medalist, unexpectedly retired after winning the team trials for this season. Olympic veteran John Daly, who hasn’t completely ruled out a comeback before 2022, is not sliding this season and has probably competed for the last time. Katie Uhlaender’s status is a bit unclear, so of the four skeleton athletes representing the U.S. in Pyeongchang only Kendall Wesenberg is starting this season at the World Cup level.
There have been changes in leadership with skeleton as well, with former slider Caleb Smith moving into the role of technical and development lead coach.
“It has been great working with Caleb and this team,” Wesenberg said. “And I am excited to see what we can do.”
Luge opens its World Cup season this weekend in Austria. Bobsled and skeleton begin their World Cup slate Dec. 7 in Latvia. Both tours come to the Americans’ home track in Lake Placid, New York. Luge goes there in mid-December, bobsled and skeleton in mid-February.
It’s a long road to Beijing, but Kohn said it’s also important to not skip steps in the building process.
“There is a sense of urgency,” Kohn said. “But it is a controlled sense of urgency. We have to understand that sometimes, things take time.”
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