Natalie Geisenberger and Felix Loch, Bavarian lugers who have known each other for 22 years, spent nearly half of that span excelling at the highest level of the sport. But last season, the Germans vanished altogether from the top of podiums.
Geisenberger, the 2014 and 2018 Olympic champion, announced one month before the 2019-20 campaign that she was pregnant with her first child and missed the entire season.
Loch, the 2010 and 2014 Olympic champion, did compete. But he struggled, failing to win a single World Cup or world championships race for the first time since 2007.
This season’s world championships, the most prestigious event leading up to the Olympics in 13 months, start Friday in Königssee, Germany (TV schedule here).
The prevailing storyline: Geisenberger and Loch are back atop the world of luge.
Geisenberger just about picked up where she left off after having son Leo in May.
She finished second in the first eight races of the season, conjuring Serena Williams, who came back from childbirth to finish runner-up in four tennis majors. Then Geisenberger won the two most recent full, two-run World Cups leading into worlds, eclipsing 50 career victories.
“If you told me that in the summer, that I would not win, but win so many medals, to get second every time, for me, I would take that,” Geisenberger said last week. “I was really satisfied with my second places, but to read, ‘She was just second place,’ It was so negative. That was not so great for me. … I’m happy that topic is over.”
At Königssee, the longtime home track for Geisenberger and Loch, she can win a fifth world title in the traditional, two-run event, tying longtime rival (and retired) countrywoman Tatjana Hüfner‘s female record.
Starting when she was 19 in 2008, Geisenberger made the singles podium in all but one of her 12 Olympic and world championships starts. This season, she has traveled with Leo and excelled despite missing three months of her typical preseason training due to childbirth.
“It’s a big challenge,” coming back, she said, “but of course the other years before were also not so easy. I can’t compare [to past years] because the situation is completely different now.”
Count Loch as at least mildly surprised with Geisenberger’s seamless return.
“In October, when we start sliding … I was thinking she needs one month, two months to come back on the sled to slide like one or two years ago,” he said. “When I see Natalie sliding, I said, OK, she [looked like she] was always sliding, [like] she had no one-year break.”
Loch joked with her about all the runner-up finishes into mid-January. (“He was joking about that. Not me,” Geisenberger noted, chiming in as Loch spoke in a joint interview.)
Loch had reason to be in such a light mood — he swept all eight two-run World Cup events so far this season.
“I know every time I can be fast, but the last two years, sometimes only one run was good, the second run was bad,” Loch said. “No two runs worked together, or only in the training was good. But I didn’t forget about how to compete in the luge. I was always in a better situation than other guys think about. I was relaxed, and I know I can slide, and now everybody, I would say, can say I didn’t forget about how to do it.”
In 2018, Loch appeared destined for a third straight Olympic title to match childhood idol and coach Georg Hackl‘s luge record. He led through three of four runs. In the finale, he made a mistake midway down the track, hit the wall and finished fifth. His father, Norbert, also the German head coach, consoled him on the ice as the medalists celebrated just feet away.
Loch remembered his dad saying a German equivalent of “s— happens.”
“At home your son [then-1-year-old Lorence], and your wife [Lisa] is waiting for you,” Norbert told him. “Next year it will be gone.”
Loch notched one World Cup race victory in 2018-19, his lowest output in nine years, but more than salvaged the year by winning his sixth singles world championships title, tying Italian Armin Zöggeler‘s record.
There was no silver lining to the 2019-20 season: no wins, just two podiums, seventh in the season standings and ninth and 13th in two events at the world championships.
Asked about Loch’s talent, Geisenberger pointed at her her bicep and then her head in saying, “He’s strong here and here.”
“He thinks about the sled the whole time,” she said.
Loch went back to work last summer. With Hackl, they made small changes to his sled, which he cited as the primary reason for the revival.
“Only an expert can see the difference,” he said, adding that he hasn’t felt this comfortable in seven years. “At the moment, I have a perfect sled.”
If Geisenberger and Loch carry over this season’s success into the Beijing Games, they can tie the Winter Olympic record for golds in one individual event. It’s currently shared by many athletes, including Hackl and fellow legends Sonja Henie, Bonnie Blair, Shaun White and Ole Einar Bjørndalen.
Then the questions will start about 2026, when the Winter Olympics will be in Central Europe for the first time in their careers, in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, just four hours south of their shared home track of Königssee.
Neither Geisenberger nor Loch said they plan to stop sliding after 2022. In 2014, two men in their 40s earned luge medals. German Sylke Otto won the 2006 Olympic women’s title at 36.
“Three years ago, I said I will stop finally after 2018,” the 32-year-old Geisenberger said, “and here I am.”
Loch, a 31-year-old who plans to take it year-by-year after Beijing, dreams of friends and family watching him in Cortina.
“That would be a really cool end of my career, maybe,” he said, “but never say never.”
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