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Luge officials ‘well-prepared’ for full World Cup season

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The International Luge Federation is still planning for a full 10-race international season this fall and winter, though it has yet to say what protocols will be added to deal with the coronavirus.

The FIL released a slightly updated plan for the season Thursday, with no changes to the previously announced schedule and locations. Races will be held in seven different countries, including a World Cup stop in Lake Placid, New York, on Jan. 23 and 24 hosted by USA Luge and the Olympic Regional Development Authority.

“ORDA feels they’ll be well-prepared for our World Cup here in January,” USA Luge CEO Jim Leahy said Thursday. “They’ll have enough information to protect the athletes.”

Thursday’s schedule announcement was largely about detailing which cities will host sprint races and team relays as part of the World Cup stop.

The season will begin as usual at Innsbruck, Austria on Nov. 28 and 29, followed by races the next three weekends in German cities – Altenberg, Oberhof and Winterberg. After a Christmas and New Year’s break, the tour resumes Jan. 9 and 10 in Sigulda, Latvia, then the following weekend in Konigssee, Germany and then the race in Lake Placid.

From there, Whistler, British Columbia will play host to the world championships. The weekend of Feb. 20 and 21 sees athletes visit the newly built Chinese track near Beijing – the site of the 2022 Olympics – followed by the season finale on the 2018 Olympic track in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

“I really think it’s going to come down to just creating a safe environment, having people be comfortable and taking the right safety precautions,” said Olympic silver medalist Chris Mazdzer, the longtime USA Luge slider and the athletes’ representative on the FIL Executive Board. “It’s not going to be an easy task … but it’s kind of the reality that we’re facing right now.”

Travel restrictions are likely going to be in place, and the FIL is weighing many options to protect athletes – including, Leahy said, the possibility of having races without fans. It’s all with the primary goal, he said, of getting through all 10 race weeks safely.

“Next season is important because it’s the start of Olympic qualification for a number of teams,” Leahy said.

The International Bobsled and Skeleton Federation is also working through several different scenarios for next season, one that has Lake Placid set to host the world championships over the first two weeks of February. For now, the IBSF schedule remains unchanged with nine events still set to take place in six different countries – including China, where the coronavirus pandemic originated.

In January, plans to have athletes from all three sliding sports visit the new track at Yanging, China in March for the facility’s homologation – a certification process that must take place before a new track can play host to races – were canceled, and that was when the virus was being blamed for only about 170 deaths. The virus has now been the cause of more than 484,000 deaths globally, according to data collected by researchers at Johns Hopkins University.

The homologation has since been rescheduled for this fall, though it remains uncertain which athletes will take part. Typically, such a process involves athletes from virtually every country that has sliding federations taking test runs to confirm a track’s safety.

U.S. Olympic luger Emily Sweeney looks forward from depression bout

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Luge’s World Cup campaign ends this weekend in Germany, where most of the best 100 sliders in the sport will be looking to close their international seasons on a high note.

Emily Sweeney won’t be among them.

Her season ended a couple weeks ago, on her terms.

The U.S. veteran is officially two years into her recovery from a crash at the PyeongChang Olympics that she walked away from — even with a broken neck and broken back — and two years away, she hopes, from being a medal contender at the Beijing Games.

She decided to listen to her body and step away from the frantic end of the season, heading home instead to meet her sister’s new baby and formulate a plan for her offseason.

Here’s what she has learned: Fractures heal, but everything else takes time. So while her body still betrays her from time to time on the track, an additional focus on the mental game is what Sweeney hopes will get her to the medal podium in Beijing in 2022.

“I am very comfortable about thinking about my weaknesses because I failed so much early on,” Sweeney said. “I didn’t make two Olympic teams right in a row. I constantly had to look at myself and say ‘What’s wrong? What am I not like?’ I had to be creative with my training and with the whole process. And so, I think I’m pretty comfortable with challenges.”

That’s why, this season, when she felt like her body couldn’t do it anymore she simply went home. The decision was not easy: Her team is still competing, she has plenty of friends on the circuit and her longtime boyfriend — Italian star Dominik Fischnaller — is a serious contender to win the men’s World Cup overall title.

But a setback right now could throw a serious wrench into her Olympic plans. The problem was pressure, not in the sense of what’s comes with the prospects of winning or losing in competition, but the massive gravitational force that sliders feel and fight through when they are on the ice at speeds often topping 80mph. It takes tremendous strength, and Sweeney’s neck still isn’t always up to the challenge. So, with wear and tear of the season taking a toll, she headed home.

“It’s not a question of if I’m good enough,” said Sweeney, who won a medal at last season’s world championships — cementing her status as one of the fastest women on ice. “I see it in my splits. I would have first-place splits, then get to the pressure and I ended up 15th. I just couldn’t keep going through this cycle of pushing it, pushing it, pushing it and then losing all my speed as soon as I can’t hold my head up anymore.”

So she’s working on her body and her mind.

Sweeney is one of the most-upbeat sliders on the luge circuit; always smiling, always happy, and most of the time her good mood is genuine. After the crash, however, the good mood wasn’t always there, and it took Sweeney some time to realize that there was more wrong than just the fractures in her neck and back.

“I went into a depression,” Sweeney said. “It’s weird saying that. But it feels foreign to me to say I broke my neck and my back two years ago. And it feels dramatic to say, which I guess I need to just get more comfortable with that. But I think that just the way I was raised was like, ‘All right, brush it off and move on.’ And that’s why I think I appear a lot of times like it’s just sunshine and rainbows, but this one forced me to stop. But you have to. And the alternative is to stay at that low and that just becomes miserable.”

From therapy came a plan: Do one thing a day to feel better toward the ultimate goal of medaling in 2022.

Most days, she succeeds. When Sweeney is right, especially in sprint events, few women in the world have a chance of catching her. Her sliding career is peaking. Her mental game, she thinks, is catching up.

And now she’s got two years to put the whole package together.

“Being an Olympian was my dream since I was 7 years old,” Sweeney said. “And then I became an Olympian, and I said, ‘Well, that’s not enough. I want a medal.’”

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MORE: Lugers boycott World Cup event

Olympic, world champion lugers pull out of World Cup event over safety

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U.S. Olympic silver medalist Chris Mazdzer and other top lugers are skipping this weekend’s World Cup stop in Winterberg, Germany, citing unsafe track conditions and a growing frustration with the international federation over athlete concerns.

“This was brought to the attention of the FIL [International Luge Federation] and yet again we were told that everything is ok,” was posted on Mazdzer’s Instagram. “I realize that a boycott is a lose-lose situation and there are no winners. But I have no other option at this point. I feel personally that this track is not safe for doubles sleds or for athletes who do not have adequate numbers of runs.”

Mazdzer said by phone Friday that he noticed significant bumps on the track in his first training run earlier this week.

“I couldn’t drive because I’m being thrown everywhere,” he said. “When you’re going 130 kilometers an hour [80 miles per hour], you don’t really want the track to be bad.”

An FIL spokesperson said Friday that Mazdzer’s choice was “his individual decision” and declined further comment ahead of races scheduled Saturday and Sunday. Mazdzer said that he was told the race starts will be moved down.

USA Luge said in a Friday statement that it will not participate in the World Cup and would communicate its concern for athlete safety to the FIL.

Two-time U.S. Olympian Summer Britcher said she was boycotting via Instagram, calling it “a farce of a World Cup.” Top lugers said athletes suffered serious injuries in training runs.

“I love this sport, but after too many decisions too many times that disregard 1-the safety of the athletes, and 2- the integrity and fairness of our sport, I have grown a great disdain for the International Luge Federation, and those who make these decisions,” was posted on Britcher’s account. “I will not race this weekend. I do not believe the track is safe, I do not believe it has been prepared to a World Cup standard, and I do not believe that the International Federation and Winterberg World Cup organisers should get away from this with no consequences.”

Britcher’s post noted that her team notified coaches and the technical director that the track was unsafe after her first training run Wednesday.

“Our concerns, and the concerns of the rest of the athletes from other nations throughout the day were not taken seriously,” Britcher posted.

Britcher said that several coaches attempted to fix the track for several hours on Thursday after athletes refused to train.

Olympic champion David Gleirscher of Austria and World Cup standings leader Roman Repilov of Russia and the top doubles teams of Toni Eggert and Sascha Benecken and Tobias Wendl and Tobias Arlt of Germany also posted on Instagram that they’re skipping the Winterberg World Cup, the penultimate stop of the season, for safety reasons.

Mazdzer estimated a 20 percent crash rate in training, but that the track condition has improved since Wednesday. He still plans to race next week at the last World Cup in Königssee.

“There’s a lot of problems with Winterberg,” he said after detailing the situation between athletes and the FIL, “and it’s not just the track.”

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