| USA TODAY Sports
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Chris Mazdzer went to find his dad.
Ed, a neurologist in their hometown of Saranac Lake, N.Y., stood in the second-to-last row at the finish line, the fluid steadily leaking from his nose and his beet-red cheeks the backdrop for a crooked smile that told the story of one of the USA’s early success stories at these Winter Games.
Mazdzer had just finished a brilliant run, his third of four in the men’s singles competition: a track-record 47.534 that moved the 29-year-old within two-tenths of a second of Germany’s Felix Loch, the sport’s most dominant machine, entering the final run.
But about that track record: Mazdzer had no idea.
That’s a legit track record, his dad said, emphasizing the adjective. “Holy (expletive),” Mazdzer replied, draped in a full-length USA Luge coat, his eyes wide in amazement.
A clean run, father then told son. That’s all you need, a clean run – meaning on his fourth heat, with Loch perhaps out of reach but ample room to spare between second place and fourth. Mazdzer nodded his head.
On that next run, racing from the second-to-last position, he did just good enough: Mazdzer’s time of 47.677 seconds gave him an overall time of 2:23.051 to place him in silver, as the first American male to medal in the history of singles competition, which debuted at the Winter Games in 1964. In a result nearly as surprising, Loch stumbled in his final run to fall from first to fifth, snapping his stretch of back-to-back gold medals.
“I’m amped,” Mazdzer said. “It’s weird. It’s amazing.”
The previous night, after two great runs left him in fourth among the 40 lugers here at the midway point of competition, Mazdzer went back to the Olympic Village and struggled to sleep. He chatted with his teammate, Taylor Morris. He scrolled through his Instagram account. He laid awake, still jittery from nerves and the aftereffects of the team’s caffeinated pre-race pick-me-up.
Tomorrow was the day.
Mazdzer had dreamed of this moment, like countless other would-be and actual Olympians, picturing himself on the podium to the soundtrack of the national anthem. And he grew up around the Olympics – Saranac Lake is home to dozens of Winter Games athletes over the years, while neighboring Lake Placid is, of course, an Olympics heritage site – and knew its history, and dreamed about his place in it.
“It’s so funny,” Mazdzer said. “If you live in Lake Placid and you’re just an Olympian, it’s like, ‘Oh, big deal. Everyone’s an Olympian in Lake Placid.’ Now I’ve got some hardware, so it’s like, ‘Yeah, that guy got a medal.’ I don’t have words yet.”
It had been a miserable year, performance-wise. Once one of the world’s top lugers on the World Cup circuit – he ranked third globally during the 2015-16 season – success had given way to frustration. Before the Pyeongchang Games, it had been nearly two full years since the last time Mazdzer had captured an event.
He’d been stressed. It was strange footing for a luger teammate looked to for consistency. Never too high, never too low, fellow Americans said of Mazdzer. Stressed was new.
That didn’t give way to a drop in confidence, not exactly, but it’s only natural for Mazdzer to have wondered: Can I do this, can I realize my dream? Morris helped him relax, to refocus.
“I just gave him words of encouragement,” said Morris, who finished 19th. “I didn’t want to say too much or too little. Just as a friend, you can do this, Chris. I believe in you. Just go out there and perform the way you perform. And that’s what he did today.
“Chris thrives under pressure. He knows when to put his big-boy pants on and go out and do it.”
By midafternoon Sunday, insomnia had given way to conviction. Mazdzer went to meet his parents, saving a message for his dad: I’m going for it, he said.
Maybe it was already written. He’d finished 13th in his first Olympic Games, in 2010 in Vancouver. He’d finished 13th four years later in Sochi. His bib number in Pyeonchang: 13. This coming Thursday, Feb. 15, marks the 20-year anniversary of the USA’s first luge medals, a silver and bronze in the team event at the Nagano Games.
“He was as comfortable and relaxed as I’ve seen him. And it’s wonderful,” Ed Mazdzer said. “My wife and I, we were ready for some goodness to happen.”
That confidence showed in a third run that ranks among the most memorable moments in the history of USA Luge, an outfit that to date could have been viewed kindly as an underdog and perhaps more realistically as a significant underachiever.
Across 54 years and 15 Winter Games, American men had tried and failed to earn a spot on the medal podium. Germany made one superstar after another. Meanwhile, the U.S. never crossed the threshold, and rarely got close.
Decades of failure and close-but-not-quite was gone in just under 48 seconds. Mazdzer was solid in his start, sixth among lugers in the third run with a time of 2.584 seconds, and good enough through his first two splits – still in fourth, where he began the evening. Then he picked up speed.
Mazdzer completed his third split in 9.714 seconds. He sped through the fourth and final split in 10.498 seconds, kicking into another gear to leap into second and prime medal position heading into the final heat.
“I looked at the ice and I was excited, not nervous at all, and I think that really helped me have that great third run,” he said. “It really played into my comfort zone, which is out of control, having fun.”
There are any number of reasons why this wasn’t supposed to happen. Loch fumbled another chance at gold. Mazdzer had been struggling, two years removed from his last medal. A teammate, Tucker West, was viewed as the USA’s top contender; he finished 25th.
But the conditions were right. It was cold. The track was hard. Technique more than anything was key. The conditions mirrored those in Lake Placid – it felt like home. For Mazdzer, it just felt right.
“I knew that I had it,” he said. “I don’t know. It was such this weird thing. I was really at peace with myself.”