The Wests’ backyard track is already entrenched in American luge lore. It was featured on ESPN and NBC during the Sochi Winter Games, and a promotional spot for NBC’s Pyeongchang Olympics coverage shows a very young West standing in front of the 800-foot long, undulating wooden structure. A few seconds later, West’s dad, Brett, is shown pushing his son down the start on a green sled, picking up speed as he bobs from side to side.

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“We got pretty fast on that,” Tucker told me, “like 45 miles per hour at top speed, just on those little flexible plastic sleds.”

Brett, a successful entrepreneur who often travels the world to watch his son race, continuously refined his homemade track to increase its potential speed and better replicate an actual luge course. Curves were added and straightaways were built; an icing system was even installed.

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The course worked almost too well. One time, Brett let a bowling ball go from the top of the track to test its frozen surface. The ball gathered so much speed that it careened off of the first curve and into a nearby tree. “I didn’t have a grand plan from the beginning,” the elder West told USA Today in 2014. “I started building and like a lot of people, just figure it out as I go.”

Adjustments were made so that Brett’s son wouldn’t wind up like that bowling ball. From then on, Tucker has just been getting faster.

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When Sheer, whose job includes finding the next generation of U.S. sliders, caught wind of the Wests’ contraption and devotion in 2004, he headed down to Ridgefield to see it all for himself. It was love at first sight. “He invited my dad and I out to Lake Placid, to try it out for real,” says West. “I was nine years old at the time. That was my first run down the [Mount Van Hoevenberg] track, from start 5, curve 12.”

Most prospective lugers in the U.S. are assessed on what USA Luge calls Slider Searches. At these events, speed-happy youngsters navigate closed-off roads and bales of hay using sleds with rollerblade wheels in place of steels. West was well ahead of these curves. To hear him tell it, when he got his first experience on an actual track, he was hooked.

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“It became his life, essentially,” says Hamlin, whose own luge career started on a Slider Search. “Once he got into the program, he dedicated all of his time—he moved up to Lake Placid when he could. And he’s had a lot of resources available to him to be able to live here and train here. Basically putting your blinders on and focusing on one thing.”

The fabled track still stands on the Wests’ sprawling West Mountain Road estate, making the nearby grass tennis court look like an innocuous patch of sod. You’ve noticed that almost-too-apropos address. Tucker West, it seems, was born to luge. “I’ve pursued it ever since,” he said.

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When West broke the track record at the Lake Placid World Cup stop in late 2014—and then broke it again on his second run of the day—it was clear that the precocious teenager had an unteachable talent for this uniquely demanding sport. His comparatively sprawling margin of victory, 0.77 seconds, was so overwhelming that the Germans asked that it be rechecked.

“That was one of the weirdest World Cups I’ve ever slid in,” says West. “The week going into it I had absolutely awful training. At the last second we made an adjustment to my sled—we sharpened up my runners a little bit. It gave me more control, and things just starting clicking. As I came to the finish curve, crossed the finish line, I didn’t even have to look at the time. I knew.

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“I like to think that, in that race, I was able to unlock my potential of what I can do everywhere in the world.”


Luge is the only Winter Olympic event in which athletes are timed to the thousandth of a second. This is partially out of necessity: at the 1972 Olympics, two gold medals were awarded in the doubles event when teams tied to the hundredth of a second. But more than anything, that timing distinction reflects this sliding sport’s unrivaled speed. Lugers lay supine, an aerodynamic-friendly position, and their sleds are designed to glide on the ice with as little resistance as possible. The goal is to go as fast as possible; the game is to find ways to expand the idea of the possible forever further out.

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“Go ask a skeleton athlete, what’s up with those lugers—are they actually that crazy?” says U.S. luger Chris Mazdzer. “And they’ll be like, ‘Yup.’”

Mazdzer is a luge lifer. The 29-year-old grew up in Saranac Lake, N.Y., just a few miles from Lake Placid, and has embraced the itinerant nature of his sport like few others. He serves as the U.S. athlete representative to the FIL, he’s something of a big brother to West, and he participated in the homologation of the track in Pyeongchang, where he’ll compete in his third Olympics. He has built a life in and around the sport, which is why he appreciates how remarkable West’s talent truly is.

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“Unlike bobsled and skeleton, we have to start such a young age,” says Mazdzer. “You don’t really start hitting your peak until your late 20s—unless you’re Tucker.”

The 2015-16 FIL World Cup season started well for West, with a seventh-place finish in Innsbruck, Austria. Then, in Lake Placid, he took silver. His teammates fared even better: Mazdzer took the gold, and the top three U.S. women—Hamlin, Emily Sweeney (one of three U.S. Olympians to participate in the U.S. Army’s World Class Athletes Program), and Summer Britcher—swept the podium in a historic result. Even on the Americans’ home track, the results impressed the Germans. Hackl called it “good for luge,” while the normally frosty Geisenberger requested a selfie with the trio of women’s medalists.

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Loch, the two-time defending Olympic gold medalist, couldn’t have had a worse start to his season. After being disqualified in Innsbruck for an overweight sled, he sat atop Mount Van Hoevenberg with a .128-second lead after the first run of the two-run race. But then the German made a crucial mistake on curve 16 and hit the wall; that effectively guaranteed defeat on the meandering, technical track that demands precise driving.

Loch’s sixth-place finish was even harder to swallow in the context of Germany’s pre-season efforts to prepare for Lake Placid. Only six runs are given to each luger per race week—a limit that attempts to level the competition—but Loch wanted more reps on Mount Van Hoevenberg before the December race. So that November, a group of 10 German coaches and sliders made a cross-Atlantic trip, under the guise of a different type of practice.

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“They wanted to keep it down that the German team was here,” Harder says. “They told the Lake Placid authorities they would come with the junior team. Someone saw the top team and Sandy [Caligiore, a media and public relations representative for USA Luge] said, ‘Hey, the German top team is here!’ I wrote it, and the Germans were very angry about this information.”

The Lake Placid trip was criticized in Germany for its high cost and lost training time back home. The United States and other luge nations take preseason trips to Lillehammer, where the climate is conducive to sliding in the fall, for an informal kickoff to the new season. But Germany’s journey to upstate New York was something entirely different. The only real explanation for the journey was a maniacal desire to maintain its longstanding grip on the sport.

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All of which is to say that Germany’s dominance isn’t just about culture or institutions—they want to win, badly, and will do anything and everything they can to do it. German lugers sometimes cover their sleds at the end of runs so opponents can’t view their setups; these opponents include fellow Germans. “You don’t see the camaraderie amongst the German team that you see on other teams,” says Sheer, “and it’s because of that system they’ve created.” Infighting between athletes from rival tracks is freely mentioned in luge circles.

While most of the luge world seems to work together, the prevailing feeling is that, as with everything else in the sport, there’s Germany, and there’s everyone else. What this means, from one moment to the next, is that no one competes with the Germans quite as furiously as… the Germans. On a recent World Cup broadcast, announcer Tim Singer said Hufner “stays away from the drama of the German program.” One luger told me that some Germans would rather see another country’s lugers win a medal than a compatriot from an opposing German track. At one particular race, Harder spoke to “unusual harmony” among the German women’s team.

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“Currently, we have very good athletes, but that’s just for the moment,” says Hackl, whose affinity for luge stems from a childhood apprenticeship in metallurgy. “I remember times when we were thinking about and didn’t understand why U.S. athletes were faster than us, why Austrian athletes were faster than us, why Italian athletes were faster than us. I know all these times, and I didn’t forget.”

When you lose the bet. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
When you lose the bet. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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Park City, the race after Lake Placid on the 2015-16 calendar, bore more fruit for the Americans: another gold for Mazdzer, a silver for Hamlin and two golds for Britcher, in the two-run race and one-run sprint competitions. This speedster’s paradise, with its long, sweeping sections of track, also marked a return to form for Loch, who took bronze. It would be the last time in some time that he’d finish anywhere but first—the German would go on to win seven consecutive gold medals, including two sprint races, at five different courses in four different countries. He ran away with the season’s overall World Cup title, with Mazdzer finishing third and West finishing seventh.

Loch’s level of consistency—and, by extension, Germany’s dominance throughout luge history—seems practically impossible given the infinitesimally small margins by which races are decided.

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“Technology is a big part of that,” explains Hamlin, who finished fourth overall in 2015-16. “They have databases of statistics and numbers, down to the sled setup and steel changes for particular tracks in different weather conditions. We’ve tried to start doing that. It’s not going to benefit my career, but in 20 years, if we start now, we might have that level of information.”

The Americans have made technological strides during Hamlin’s career, especially in recent years. A refrigerated start room in Lake Placid includes three ramps, all coated in ice and constructed at various heights in order to mimic luge tracks around the world. Force meters and timing systems allow coaches and sliders to know exactly how strong their all-important starts are. You can’t win a race at the start, the old saw goes, but you can certainly lose it.

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According to Hamlin, the U.S. team has doubled its video capabilities in Pyeongchang. During the team’s first trip there in 2017 for a World Cup test event, it installed two permanent cameras on Curve 9, the most treacherous section of the course and one which will undoubtedly play a role in deciding the Olympic medals. The curve was so difficult to navigate that nations were sharing tips with each other in order to get sliders down safely.

Mazdzer, who has struggled since his third-overall finish in 2015-16, admits that the world’s best shot at Germany is in Pyeongchang. It’s a new track, one that hasn’t been dissected, inch by inch, after years’ worth of runs. Hamlin’s bronze in 2014, at the Sochi track built in 2012, proved that talent can overcome technology under such circumstances. And Loch’s winning streak in 2015-16—which included gold medals in Calgary, Sigulda, two German tracks and, yes, Sochi—proved that the Germans are capable of deciphering any course if given enough time.

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“Their data collection process and procedures are rather elaborate,” says Mazdzer, “and they will without a doubt be the first nation to figure out how to set up their sleds.”

As with its excursion to Lake Placid, Germany will spare no expense on engineers, personnel, and any other methods in which they could gain an advantage in Pyeongchang.

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“I was watching the Germans do some extensive testing yesterday,” West told me from Pyeongchang last February. “[Loch] came down with a computer in his sled, he had like six cameras lined up on it, he had wind testers on it, something I’ve never seen before.

“So that was pretty secretive. He ran that inside.”


The scene on West Mountain Road in the summer of 2016 was one of appreciation and anticipation. Two World Cup seasons had passed since West’s Olympic debut; from this point on, Pyeongchang was closer than Sochi. The Sochi Olympics, that is—Sochi, the West family’s English Mastiff, was nearby and to all appearances enjoying the idyllic summer evening with many two-legged admirers. A sumptuous meal was served, including grilled chicken, savory salads and, of course, sliders.

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As Brett West regaled guests with stories about the backyard track, Tucker, clad in an ensemble fit for Nantucket, explained how the United States’ push toward Pyeongchang would be taking a decidedly German turn. Bengt Walden, a former slider from Sweden, had just been hired by USA Luge after a stint coaching Norway.

“This is where Bengt’s German connections come in,” says West. “Norway also hired a retired German slider, David Möller, to help coach and take up the sled development program. Bengt was able to work with Möller over the years and became close friends with him, which also allowed him to pick up on some German techniques and training styles.”

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Walden’s first act as coach was overhauling the Americans’ start training program. Thanks to the refrigerated start room, this was an aspect of training that the team could work on regularly, including over the summer. West would drive to Lake Placid the next day to begin the more structured regimen.

“He’s going to improve the team’s starts ten-fold,” said West, “which, for some people, is the only missing link to getting to the top of the podium consistently.”

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West won two gold medals in his first three races of the 2016-17 season, in large part due to improved starts. His finishes didn’t hurt, either. Like Loch the year before, West took the final run in Lake Placid after posting the best opening run. Barreling down Mount Van Hoevenberg, West crossed the penultimate split at .001 seconds behind Russia’s Semen Pavlichenko, one of the world’s top sliders. “Most athletes have been on both sides of that thousandth,” West told me the previous year in Park City.

West had just enough track left to cross to the other side. Another gold followed in snowy Calgary; the only reason West didn’t finish in the Top 5 overall was a season-opening disqualification in Winterburg, for an overweight sled.

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The other American sliders have benefitted from Walden’s tutelage, too. At the 2016-17 World Championships in Innsbruck, Hamlin, not known for her starts, finished second overall. Two spots behind Hamlin—who also won the one-run sprint race at last year’s Worlds—was Britcher. The 23-year-old from Glen Rock, Pa. went on to win both the two-run and sprint races in Lillehammer earlier this year and finished third in the overall 2017-18 World Cup standings. As of this week, Britcher was given the fourth-best odds to win gold (at +800; Geisenberger is the favorite at -200) at bwin.com.

Meanwhile, the top U.S. doubles team of Matt Mortensen and Jayson Terdiman finished the 2016-17 season third overall, ahead of the talented Germans Robin Geueke and David Gamm, and Latvian brothers Andris and Juris Sics. The U.S. pair’s career year was the culmination of innate talent, Walden’s teaching and, just as significant, a helpful bit of German technology.

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While playing golf with Walden in 2015, Terdiman was made aware of André Florschuetz, an Olympic silver medalist in doubles. The ex-German slider took an interest in working with Terdiman and Mortensen after watching their first season of racing as a team. Specifically, he wanted to build them a superior sled.

The American and the German communicated over video conferences before the tour returned to Europe in January 2016.

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“We set up a meeting with André during the week the team was in Oberhof, Germany,” says Terdiman. “Over the next month I had three other meetings with him, in his garage-workshop at his home. I would drive about four hours, both ways, from our different stops on tour to get to his place, and we would work between three and five hours on sled measurements at each of these meetings.”

Florschuetz worked on the sled over the spring and summer, tailoring it to fit Terdiman like a bespoke suit. The Berwick, Pa. native is the only person of the team actually laying on the sled; Mortensen lays on top of him, connected to the sled by leg straps. This explains why NBC Olympics correspondent Mary Carillo says of doubles luge that, “it’s like a bar bet gone bad.”

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The sled was finally delivered to Terdiman in August 2016, and it immediately paid dividends. He estimates it shaved a tenth of a second per run, if not more, from his and Mortensen’s times. That sliver of time counts for a lot. In July, after Terdiman and Mortensen’s successful 2016-17 season, USA Luge hired Florschuetz as a technology consultant.

“I’m happy to have been able to open that door for USA Luge,” says Terdiman. “It has and will continue to help this team thrive.”

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Erin Hamlin, winner. (Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images)
Erin Hamlin, winner. (Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images)

West’s run-up to Pyeongchang recalls Hamlin’s experience prior to Sochi. She didn’t medal in the World Cup season preceding the Olympics; he collected just a single bronze in 2017-18. Like Hamlin, West will be chasing an exceptional German talent: both Geisenberger and Loch finished first overall in the 2013-14 and 2017-18 World Cup seasons. And both Americans will give chase on a brand-new track—“a neutral zone,” says West, who will have as many practice runs at the Alpensia Sliding Centre as anyone else. “Come race day, we’re all going to be on even footing.”

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And come race day, after a week of practice that gives each Olympic luger just six runs, the massive, inherent advantages of a home track will give way to pure talent. West and those close to him are confident that he can shine under those conditions. “I know he has medal aspirations and expectations,” Brett West says about his son. “I guess I’m in the same boat.

“Tucker has dedicated his life to the sport, and sacrificed so much to get here. He isn’t doing this to be content with fourth place, and I agree with that thinking. He is delaying an entrepreneurial career he had plans for, because Olympic medal goals must be met, and I admire that.”

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One additional medal possibility for West is the team relay. Introduced at the 2014 Olympic Games, the event brings together the top-finishing man, woman, and doubles team from their individual races for one last shot at a podium.

“If he gets the [team relay] slot, I give it better than 50 percent odds,” calculates Brett.

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How Tucker and his teammates fare in Pyeongchang, and in future Olympic Games, is of great consequence to the U.S. Luge Association. The organization commits considerable resources in every athlete it trains, feeds, houses, and shuttles around the world, but invests most deeply those at the elite level. Sheer, who like West was drawn to luge as a child and has never let it go, knows this first hand. “The pressure’s on the Games, because that’s where you’re judged by the U.S. Olympic committee,” says Sheer. “U.S. luge sponsors provide the lion’s share of our budget. Close behind is the USOC.”

This isn’t something that West or his peers will be thinking about on the track, though. Sheer describes luge as the last bastion of athletes involved with sport just for the sake of competing. Where other sports offer the potential for fame and riches, luge offers the thrill of speed and the pursuit of the next thousandth-of-a-second. And that’s just the way its athletes like it.

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“It’s the nature of our sport in this country,” says Sheer. “People may come out to see a World Cup luge race, but they may not understand the overall context. They don’t realize that it’s part of a whole series.

“I really don’t care about that. if you’re in it for glory, you’re not in the right sport.”