BY AIMEE BERG I JULY 23, 2013
|Chris Mazdzer poses for a portrait during the USOC/NBC Olympics
photo shoot in late April in West Hollywood, Calif.
The U.S. luge team has won Olympic, World Cup, and World Championship medals. But the U.S. has never won an Olympic medal in singles luge, and only one American singles slider on the men’s side enters this season with Olympic experience: Chris Mazdzer.
Mazdzer, 25, has been sliding as long as many Europeans. He won six junior world championship medals. He nearly made the 2006 U.S. Olympic Team as a high school senior.
He finally made his Olympic debut in Vancouver, finishing 13th. Now that his Vancouver teammates Tony Benshoof and Bengt Walden have retired — Mazdzer remains the last carryover.
“I was pulled up into the older generation,” he said. Now he’s the old man on the U.S. men’s singles team — but only by three months.
“I feel like everyone looks up to me for knowledge,” he said of his peers. They also look to him for a laugh.
Mazdzer is an easygoing New Yorker from upstate Peru, a place that he said has “more cows than people” and an abundant apple crop that could sustain far more than the town’s (biped) population of 6,998. In Peru, winters were the longest seasons and Mazdzer quickly became addicted to sledding. Luge followed, when he was 8.
Mazdzer immediately became a fixture in the kids’ luge program in Lake Placid, about 40 minutes from home. But friends and free Happy Meals, offered by the sponsor, weren’t the only pulls.
Sessions were held on the hairy old 1980 Olympic luge track. “Yeah, we’d hit the walls, but in our winter jackets it didn’t hurt that bad,” he said. “I’d get seven to nine runs a night. It was like Ultimate Sledding.”
Kids would start in a lower section called the labyrinth. After each run, Mazdzer would sprint from the bottom of the track to the start. His mother and his neurologist father tried it, too — and so did his younger twin sisters. But two years later, the program ended when the track was dismantled.
The lack of organized luge only deepened Mazdzer’s hunger. When he was 11, U.S. coaches held a screening camp on Lake Placid’s new combined bobsled-luge track. Mazdzer’s experience helped him shine; he was selected for the junior development team. Finally, he was put on a real sled and worked his way up to the women’s start.
He also found catalysts in his coaches: three-time Olympian Duncan Kennedy and Dusty Grant. “I would have cut off my arm if they told me to,” Mazdzer said. “I was so motivated.”
By 13, Mazdzer was competing against 18- and 19-year-olds on the junior World Cup circuit.
He was in eighth grade. And when he returned to his family’s new Saranac Lake home after his rookie season, he was ranked second in the world for lugers 16 and under.
“I grew up so fast,” he said of spending all those months in Europe during that 2002-03 season.
“At 13, 14 and 15, I wanted to do really well so I could keep travelling,” he said. Two winters later, Mazdzer found himself in the Montreal airport dragging home a huge trophy for finishing the 2004-05 season ranked No. 1 in the world for youth 16 and under.
Not even his schoolwork could catch him. The Internet was still in the dial-up era, and despite hauling a Ziploc bag full of bulky electrical adapters overseas, many of his teachers would simply mail his assignments to Europe.
“It would take seven days to get there, and I’d have to leave on day six,” Mazdzer said. “My Spanish homework followed me around Europe. Then, about one week before I’d fly home, I’d get this huge packet of all the work.”
In 2006, Mazdzer advanced seamlessly to the true junior category (20 and under) and found himself vying for an Olympic berth. All he had to do was beat his roommate Jonathan Myles in a best-two-of-three-run race-off.
“It was okay,” Mazdzer says now. “At the beginning of the year, I didn’t think I was a contender. I was in high school. I never had this false dream. But I kept getting better and better during the season. I didn’t realize how close it was. I definitely didn’t get ahead of myself.”
Instead, the 17-year-old went to the 2006 junior world championships and earned the first two (of six) career medals.
|Chris Mazdzer competes during the men's singles luge competition at
the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games at Whistler Sliding
Centre in Whistler, Canada on Feb.13, 2010.
In 2006, he also graduated on time from the National Sports Academy high school in Lake Placid after a one-year detour to attend a regular high school and try his hand at lacrosse — which was a quasi-disaster. Mazdzer said he was busted for slashing and illegal substitution within the first 15 seconds of his first game because he was unaware of the rules. “The coach was like, ‘Really?’” he said.
For the next few years, Mazdzer kept sliding in both singles and doubles on the junior World Cup while dabbling on the senior World Cup.
“He has a lot of energy — even now,” said U.S. national team head coach Miro Zayonc. “It’s unbelievable, actually.”
In his final junior world championship appearance, for example, Mazdzer helped the U.S. win gold in the 2008 team event. Most countries used four athletes (one woman, one man and one doubles pair). But Mazdzer contested both singles and doubles, so “I was 2/3 of the ‘team,’” he said with a laugh.
Zayonc said Mazdzer’s talent had been obvious from the outset but Mazdzer admits that he’s not the most explosive athlete or the fastest starter. “My forte is probably the ability to work with changing conditions,” he said. “I’m comfortable adjusting.”
And that’s exactly what Mazdzer’s Olympic debut required. After Nodar Kumaritashvili of Georgia died on a training run on the Vancouver track, luge officials decided to lower the starting point to make it slower and less technical. The men had only two training runs to figure out how to change their driving instincts. Those who knew where to push and where to back off won the medals. As expected, Germany went 1-2. The U.S. went 8, 13 and 15, led by Benshoof.
Now, as Mazdzer enters his prime, he will approach the Sochi Olympic season with confidence. At the 2013 World Championships in Vancouver (on the Whistler Olympic track) he placed sixth — behind four Germans and a Canadian who was competing on his home course.
It was the high point of Mazdzer’s career to date.
“I feel like I beat out the rest of the world,” he said.
Aimee Berg is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.