LAKE PLACID - With a large contingent of family and friends on hand for support, two-time Olympian and 2009 world champion Erin Hamlin won her fifth straight Norton National Luge Championship on Tuesday, March 13 at the Olympic Sports Complex.
Chris Mazdzer of Saranac Lake grabbed the Norton men's title, while the doubles team of Christian Niccum and Jayson Terdiman took gold in doubles.
The national championships concluded the season for United States luge racers on a day that broke overcast and mild, changed to a brief downpour, and then cleared. The race format presented three events in two days: each day's competition was a separate seeding race, with the combination of both days used to declare the national champion.
Emily Sweeney prepares for her third run Tuesday, March 13 at the Norton National Championship in Lake Placid.
Photo by USA Luge
Hamlin of Remsen dominated in winning Tuesday's second two-heat seeding race. The combination of the Monday and Tuesday seeding victories gave her a national championship crown by nearly 0.9 of a second.
The top three were exactly the same in both seeding events and the national championship.
Hamlin's final two heats (second seeding race) of 45.375 and 44.935 seconds totaled two minutes, 58.924 seconds.
"The runs were really good, but a little slow, given the conditions," she said. "It's nice to end the season on a positive note. It's good to win and slide here where it's familiar and comfortable."
Hamlin's followers cheered loudly as she concluded her final heat and was declared the winner. Now she'll take a break from the ice and head to the snow for some skiing before a return to Lake Placid and some springtime luge training on the same track prior to the targeted closing date of April 14.
Emily Sweeney of Suffield, Conn. was second in the seeding race and the nationals. She posted four runs that were timed in 2:59.810. The winner of two Junior World Cups and three Junior Challenge Cup races this past winter will embark shortly for five months of basic training with the Army National Guard.
Julia Clukey was third each day and won the national championship bronze medal in 3:00.077. As the 2011-2012 season concludes, Clukey, a member of the 2010 Olympic team, is just beginning her return to luge racing after surgery last spring for Chiari Syndrome at the D.I.S. C Sport and Spine Center in California.
"I missed a lot of training time, so I'll start training again to get stronger," Clukey said. "I was holding back a little here at the start, but I know that will get better with time."
On a weekly basis, Clukey has proven to be among the fastest starters on the international circuit. She has been as high as fifth in World Cup races and sixth at the World Championships.
"It was hard training on my own all year," Clukey said. "But today proved my hard work paid off."
Hamlin piled up the maximum 200 seeding points, Sweeney had 170 and Clukey 140. United States luge team coaches will incorporate these results into the process of naming the fall 2012 team.
Although Mazdzer captured the four-heat Norton title, Joe Mortensen won the final day's event, while Mazdzer slipped to seventh. Mazdzer, however, had enough of a first-day advantage to win his fourth national crown, and third straight, in 3:33.006.
When men's action began, the sky opened into a downpour, and Mazdzer suffered in the Heart section (curves 17-18-19) of the track.
"Conditions are changing so much that it might throw people off," Mazdzer said after his third heat. "I think that's what got me. That last run we were all even, which was pretty exciting."
Mazdzer finished third in points with 146 after winning Monday. Mortensen won the two-day seeding series with 170 points and was third in the nationals in 3:33.202.
"This race was not too bad," said Mortensen, who like his brother Matt, is a member of the Army National Guard. "The last few World Cups where I didn't qualify for the World Championships gave me the opportunity to come back here and get more comfortable and stable on the sled. That's exactly what happened ... getting comfortable in a race atmosphere. That's where I have the most trouble."
Robby Huerbin was second in both the seeding events (155 points) and the nationals on the final competitive day of his career. Huerbin announced his retirement after the event.
"The (last) run was really good," Huerbin said. "It was actually my best here. But I'm a small guy. I need to be heavier.
"This is the end for me. It's been a good career, but it's time to move on. It's been a great experience."
Huerbin, 21, won a World Junior Championship bronze medal and added a number of podium results in the Junior World Cup and Norton National Championships prior to ending his career.
The day concluded with the doubles event that saw a repeat of Monday. Two-time Olympic team member Niccum, with Terdiman, won by more than 0.5 of a second over silver medalists Matt Mortensen (Joe's brother) and 2006 Olympian Preston Griffall. Juniors Jake Hyrns and Andrew Sherk placed third.
The winners' two individual heats of 44.699 and 45.061 were the fastest of each heat, and totaled 1:29.760. Their performance was in marked contrast to last March when Niccum's back problems were such that they could not compete in this event. He underwent back surgery last spring.
"The crew did a good job with the weather conditions," said Niccum, who revealed earlier that his wife is expecting the couple's third child. "It's pretty warm and raining, not great sledding conditions. But they did a good job and we tried to do our part by making runs that were fast."
Niccum will now take some time to re-connect with his family before resuming training for next season.
"They were solid runs today," Terdiman said. "The conditions were extremely different from yesterday. We just tried to let the sled do its thing. And I'm really happy how today worked out for us."
Niccum's back driver is now headed home before he resumes physical preparation for next season. Part of that process will include a two-week stint in Germany training with that team's top doubles athletes Tobias Wendl and Tobias Arlt.
As the weather cleared and warmed, the medal ceremony took place at Mid's Park in Lake Placid. As smiles and handshakes overtook the parting scene and athletes went their separate ways for the spring, there was the reminder that time, like a luge sled itself, flies.
After an off-season of training, the track will be ready in October.