Beijing • Chris Mazdzer gave a thumbs up and a heartfelt but melancholy message of thanks to his fans prior to pushing off for his second heat of the Eberspacher World Cup luge race in Sigulda, Latvia, early last month. The 2018 silver medalist in men’s singles was teetering on the brink of qualifying for his fourth Olympics, but the only breaks he’d gotten this season were to his bones and his sled.
He thought his career was over, but the sport wasn’t done with him yet.
This week, the Salt Lake City athlete will get four hard-earned bonus runs in Beijing. That’s four runs to channel the pain and frustration and disappointment of the season into one memorable moment.
“I’m really not a, like, the-world-is-against-me kind of person, but it’s been pretty tough the past couple of months,” Mazdzer, 33, said. “It felt like pretty much nothing went my way. But that doesn’t mean it’s always going to be like that, right? Like, I am always optimistic. I feel like I can overcome anything if I set my mind to it.”
This season has tested that determination.
It started with the pandemic. Mazdzer and his wife, Mara, welcomed their first child, Nicolai, into their lives in April. Soon after, as they tried to create their own bubble among rising COVID-19 cases, their house was bursting with seven people, three dogs, a cat.
“There’s no privacy,” Mazdzer joked.
Then came the loneliness. On the road for most of the past five months, Mazdzer said it has been difficult watching his son grow up via FaceTime.
“He’s getting close to taking his first steps, I really think it could be any day now,” Mazdzer said. “So being, you know, on the road and missing things like that, it’s obviously really hard.”
He paired his heartache with a more physical ache in September. A few weeks before the World Cup tour was set to begin, Mazdzer fractured his right foot when he knocked it against a piece of ice while going about 75 mph down the track in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia.
“After investing physically, mentally and financially for this Olympic year,” he said, “the game plan changed in just the matter of a few seconds.”
His plans may have changed, but he did not veer from his goals. Mazdzer — who four years ago in Pyeongchang became the first American man to medal in singles luge — had set his sights on becoming the first slider to compete in singles, doubles and the mixed team relay at the Olympics.
After a few weeks’ rest, which he mostly spent tinkering with his sled, he returned to competition. His traveling gear now included a sleek carbon fiber boot. He couldn’t brake, but he could run, or at least hobble quickly.
Yet, the time Mazdzer had spent recovering had cost him his singles position on the World Cup tour as an individual. In addition, he and his sliding partner, Jayson Terdiman — whom he’d raced with as a junior more than a decade earlier — had missed valuable time synching together inside their brand-new sled. So as they headed into the first World Cup event of the season, which happened to be in Yangquing on the Olympic track that is being used in competition this week, they only had the team relay to get things dialed in.
For once, things went right for Mazdzer. The relay took silver, delivering Mazdzer’s Olympic teammate Ashley Farquharson of Park City her first World Cup medal in the process. When the next World Cup relay was held, the Americans collected a bronze, making it a contender for a medal in Beijing. As they began to jive, Mazdzer and Terdiman began to rise in the world rankings..
Of course it couldn’t be that easy. Not for Mazdzer. Not this season.
The final race before the end of the Olympic qualifying period was held in Sigulda on Jan 7, and Mazdzer and Terdiman needed little more than a clean run to secure their spot. But they were finally healthy and confident and willing to push the envelope so they could better position themselves to do well in China. So they did, and then they hit the wall.
The pair tried to right their sled in a desperate attempt to save their careers. It didn’t happen.
“It’s just unfortunate,” Mazdzer said. “If it’s a one-run race, don’t crash in it.”
Though neither was hurt, it appeared the crash would be career-ending for both sliders. Terdiman did step away afterward, but only competitively. In an act of selflessness, within hours of the crash he was helping tinker with the sled setup of the young doubles pair that suddenly found itself bound for the Winter Games. USA Luge has since offered him a position, and he was hoping to get clearance to be in Beijing.
Mazdzer, meanwhile, had to sit through a couple weeks of limbo before he’d find out if he’d ever race again. He hasn’t expressly said he would retire, but he did say he didn’t plan to race in another Olympics. Hence his heartfelt expression prior to his final trip down the Sigulda track.
But right then is when his luck started to change.
On Saturday, he let all the sensations hit him as he prepared for what is likely his penultimate day of competition. The thrill of the twists of the track known as the “snow dragon.” His teammates flashing the letters U-S-A on their bare bellies in the 25-degree chill. The contentment of rising to ninth after two runs so that he could still be within striking distance of a medal come Sunday.
Then Mazdzer committed the moment, and the feeling, to memory.
The sweet isn’t as sweet without the sour.
“It’s the Olympics, it’s just fun to be a part of this, it’s amazing,” he said after his runs. “The whole world is coming together. It’s the biggest race of the year, of most people’s lives, and you feel that. But at the same time, it’s this moment where it’s like, this is all of our dreams — it’s to make it and we’re living that right now.”