LILLEHAMMER, Norway - The last World Cup luge race was held in late February when the circuit competed in Sochi, Russia for the 2013 tour finals and official test event prior to the 2014 Winter Olympics.
As the World Cup begins the 2013-2014 Olympic season this weekend, all athletes will have their eyes on the Lillehammer finish line, but excuse them if their thoughts return to Sochi.
The 1994 Olympic track starts a run of five World Cup meets that will determine the composition of the United States Olympic Luge Team. The American squad will be nominated on Dec. 14 in Park City, Utah.
The U.S. trained in Lillehammer in late September, but they have returned to a track that has changed with the weather.
"It's actually much colder now. There's a little snow on the ground," said 2006 Olympian Preston Griffall, the back driver for Matt Mortensen. "The track's in good shape. They've done a lot of work on it. It's pretty fast right now. It's good to go.
"We've been trying out some different equipment, especially in Sochi, trying to get a really good set-up going for that track. We want to make sure we have something really good to fall back on if the weather happens to be warm. We already have equipment that works really good in the cold weather, but when it gets to be warm we have to switch things up a little bit. Now we're getting back to our normal set-up and focusing on sliding well."
The World Cup last visited Lillehammer four seasons ago. It was a noteworthy occasion for USA Luge, as 2009 world champion and two-time Olympian Erin Hamlin collected a bronze medal. After that weekend in Dec. 2009, a race-off was held in women's singles and doubles to determine the final Vancouver Olympic berths.
Mark Grimmette, now the U.S. Luge Team's Sport Program Director, and partner Brian Martin emerged from the race-off and advanced to Vancouver over Mortensen and Griffall, while Emily Sweeney, sister Megan Sweeney and Kate Hansen were locked in a battle for the final women's spot.
Megan Sweeney came through the pressure-cooker to join Hamlin and Julia Clukey. Since then Megan Sweeney has retired, continued her education in Utah and is now an account manager in San Francisco for On Board Experiential Marketing. But Emily and Hansen remain in the battle for Sochi positions with Summer Britcher.
Hansen, training and competing despite a broken bone in her foot, and Sweeney are junior world champions challenging the likes of Hamlin and Clukey, while Britcher was on the 2012 gold medal relay team at the Youth Olympic Games.
With a sixth place overall World Cup standing last winter - one spot ahead of Hamlin - Clukey is the top-ranked American entering the new season. The 2010 Olympian topped off last year with a career-best World Cup silver medal in Lake Placid.
"I certainly need to get into race mode. It's been a long pre-season," Clukey said. "Fortunately, we got to go to lots of tracks, but that's also meant lots of travel. I'm ready to buckle down and get into the race week. I'm excited to see where I stand after working hard all summer and training this fall, and building momentum as the winter goes along."
Chris Mazdzer of Saranac Lake heads the men's singles contingent after placing sixth in the 2013 World Championships and fifth in the Lake Placid World Cup. In the fall, Mazdzer won the Norton National Championship and the fall seeding series.
"This track certainly has changed since the last time we were here," said Mazdzer, who placed 13th at the Vancouver Games. "There's a lot more ice. It's cold. It's completely different than Sochi. The last few days I've struggled in making those changes. I've worked on my equipment so hopefully the changes will put me on a better path for the World Cup."
USA Luge has a total of 16 athletes in Lillehammer for the World Cup opener, five each in men's and women's singles, and three doubles sleds.
Other men's singles racers in the opening day lineup include Taylor Morris, Tucker West, Joe Mortensen, Matt's brother, and Aidan Kelly.
Two other doubles teams will join Mortensen and Griffall. Norton National champions Jake Hyrns and Andrew Sherk are in the field as are two-time Olympian Christian Niccum and Jayson Terdiman.
Race action begins Friday with Nations Cup qualifying, leading into the weekend World Cup events. Doubles and women's singles will be held Saturday, with men's singles on Sunday ending the event.