PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (Reuters) - Chris Mazdzer’s luge career was on a slippery slope only weeks before he put together a brilliant run to deliver the United States a long-awaited individual Olympic medal in the men’s event on Sunday.
Two seasons of frustration had brought the Saranac Lake, New York resident to the brink of an abyss which he felt he would plunge into with a poor result at the Pyeongchang Winter Games.
Having shown his quality with a fourth-place finish at the 2016 world championships in Konigssee, Germany, he finished the last World Cup season 18th overall, driven to distraction by a misbehaving sled and clueless as to how to turn things around.
The 29-year-old wrote of trying to find “a light somewhere in this dark cave” in a long post on Facebook, admitting he was close to despair.
Then gradually, almost inexplicably, the worm turned in the weeks that followed that emotional confession on Jan. 21.
“It was not exactly rock bottom but pretty bottom,” Mazdzer told Reuters in an interview at the Olympic Sliding Centre in South Korea after finishing runner-up behind another surprise package in Austrian David Gleirscher.
”You give your entire life to this sport and you know that mentally, physically you’re at the top of your game but the results just haven’t been there for two seasons, really.
“And I didn’t know what to attribute that to.”
It took help from team mates, friends and rivals in the close-knit luge community for Mazdzer to unlock a winning combination that would transform his sled into a chariot of glory on the hard ice track of Pyeongchang.
He borrowed sleds, recorded videos of himself, changed his blades and suddenly a light began flickering in the cave.
“I think I cashed in all my friendships from all the other countries,” he joked. “Even my rivals felt for me. So I was able to take other competitors’ sleds down the tracks and see how it felt.”
The confidence that had been quietly accumulating exploded on Saturday, when Mazdzen came within a whisker of the medal positions after two solid runs in the preliminaries.
But it was his blazing third run that set the platform to a breakthrough silver in his third Games, beating the track record that Germany’s defending double champion Felix Loch had set only moments before.
It lifted Mazdzer to second in the standings, while wiping the smile off Loch’s face as he stood in the leaders’ booth.
A small mistake on his last run allowed Gleirscher into the gold medal position but Mazdzer’s medal was guaranteed, triggering wild celebrations from an entourage of friends and family at the finish-line terrace.
Their jubilation went up another notch when Loch struck out dramatically on his final run, stunning the German team that has virtually owned the sport for decades.
“It was like a home track for me. We had a huge contingent here from the U.S. and the best part about them is they’re here for you no matter what,” said Mazdzer.
“In between runs, I was just hanging out with them. It was so motivating.”
His triumph had echoes of team mate Erin Hamlin’s breakthrough four years ago in Sochi, when she became America’s first individual Olympic luge medallist despite achieving little in the World Cup events prior to the Games.
The light in the cave is now blinding for Mazdzer who will be able to continue his 16-year love affair with luge, for all its frustrations.
“But it’s tough because you give your entire life for luge and when you don’t do well -- if you’re not at the top you get nothing,” he added.
”Now I‘m up there. Oh my God, honestly it came down to, I need to do well at the Olympics to keep going.
“And now I can keep going.”
Editing by Christian Radnedge