PARK CITY, Utah – Three Soldiers from the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program earned nominations for the U.S. Olympic Luge Team for the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.
Team USA luge coach Staff Sgt. Bill Tavares will lead Sgt. Matt Mortensen and Sgt. Preston Griffall, who secured their spot with a ninth-place finish in doubles at the Luge World Cup stop Dec. 13 at Utah Olympic Park.
The U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program, or WCAP, duo completed its first run down the 1,335-meter track that features 15 curves in 43.948 seconds, followed by a shakier slide down the mountain in 44.132 seconds – for a cumulative time of 1:28.080. Germany's Tobias Wendl and Bvias Arlt won the race with a 1:27.326 clocking.
"There's always a little bit of pressure when you're sliding, but for Preston and I, the main thing was just get down to the finish without walls – do something that you've done hundreds of times, and just do it OK," said Mortensen, 28, of Huntington Station, N.Y. "Second run, I tried not to do it OK, but we still managed to get down without any walls."
Griffall, a 2006 Olympian who just missed making the team in 2010, had even more reason to be concerned. As the bottom guy on a doubles team, it's often difficult to see what is happening.
"Our second run, like Matt said, we had some problems on the run," said Griffall, 29, of Salt Lake City. "There's a big scoreboard, actually, behind curve 14 – because I can't see directly in front of me because Matt's sitting there – so I was turned around and trying to look at the scoreboard to see what place we were in. And we're still traveling at 60 or 70 miles per hour, and I couldn't see where the place was on the board."
Another four years instantaneously flashed through Griffall’s mind.
"I had no idea what place we were in, and Matt wasn't doing anything, so there was no reaction at first. I was like, 'Oh, my God, maybe we didn't get the place that we needed,' he recalled. "I finally was able to see around him once we got further up the outrun and I saw that we were in second place (at that point in the competition), and at that point I knew that we had met the place we needed to in order to qualify for the Olympics.
"I was just extremely excited," Griffall said. "That was what we needed to do. I was happy for both Matt and I that we were finally able to do this after seven years. This is the goal that we had, and we finally met that goal. I'm just trying to enjoy it right now and we're going to look forward toward Sochi, get there and try and go for it – give ourselves the possibility of going for a medal."
Mortensen was "paralyzed by emotion" the moment he realized the WCAP duo's second run was good enough to earn an Olympic berth.
"All that matters is that we qualified for the Olympics and we're going to Sochi," he said. "We ended up in ninth place today, which is same as last week, so that's really, really good for us."
The next day, Mortensen and Griffall enjoyed a "victory lap," of sorts, by anchoring Team USA to a silver medal in the World Cup team relay, an event that will make its Olympic debut in Sochi. Kate Hansen slid the women's singles leg, and Chris Mazdzer filled the men's singles spot on the relay team.
USA Luge officially announced nomination of the 2014 Olympic Luge Team during a gala at the Utah Olympic Park Museum.
Joining the WCAP lugers on Team USA will be Mazdzer of Saranac Lake, N.Y., Tucker West of Ridgefield, Conn., and Aidan Kelly of West Islip, N.Y., in men's singles; Erin Hamlin of Remsen, N.Y., Hansen of La Canada, Calif., and Summer Britcher of Glen Rock, Pa., in women's singles, along with Christian Niccum of Woodinville, Wash., and Jayson Terdiman of Berwick, Pa., in doubles.
"It's unbelievable," Mortensen said. "I get emotional thinking about it. It's been almost 17 years that I've been working toward this point, and for it to finally happen is like a dream come true."
Griffall hopes his third go-round might indeed produce the charm.
"Emotionally, it's a pretty powerful thing," he said. "This is the biggest event for our sport. It only happens every four years. We have World Cups and World Championships in between, but this is the big one, you know? Yeah, after Matt and I missed it narrowly in 2010, this has been a long time coming."