PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — David Gleirscher struggled to make Austria’s Olympic team. Chris Mazdzer’s season hit rock-bottom less than a month ago.
They stood higher than anyone else atop the men’s luge podium on Sunday as the reign of Germany’s Felix Loch as Olympic champion came to a slippery, stunning and sudden end.
Gleirscher was the surprise first-run leader — and a bigger surprise as the leader when it was all over. He finished his four runs at the Alpensia Sliding Center in 3 minutes, 10.702 seconds for the gold, Austria’s first in men’s luge in 50 years.
“I knew I was fast,” Gleirscher said. “I didn’t know I was that fast.”
Mazdzer made history for the U.S., giving the Americans their first men’s singles medal by finishing second in 3:10.728. Germany’s Johannes Ludwig took third in 3:10.932.
“I knew I could do it,” Mazdzer said. “It was a blast. It didn’t feel as crazy as it probably looked. But I felt in control and yeah, it was amazing.”
Loch was supposed to be a lock, the one who would tie Georg Hackl’s record as only the second person to win Olympic luge gold three consecutive times. But as snow began to fall, his reign came to an end when he skidded during his final run and lost a ton of time in an instant. He crossed the finish line fifth, sitting for several seconds on his sled in disbelief and anguish as Gleirscher celebrated his upset win.
This is how surprising it was: Gleirscher has zero World Cup medals. None. Never finished better than fourth.
On the biggest stage, he delivered the race of his life.
“I can hardly explain it,” Gleirscher said.
Mazdzer was fourth after the first two heats on Saturday, a mere one-thousandth of a second away from a medal spot. Knowing the opportunity was there for the taking, he threw down a track-record time in his third heat — jumping from fourth to second and closing the gap on Loch.
In his final run, Mazdzer crossed the line knowing he clinched a medal. The only question was whether it would be silver or bronze. Loch was the only slider left, and his skid sealed the outcome.
On the leaders’ box, when Loch lost control, Ludwig turned to Mazdzer and Gleirscher and said, “What just happened?”
He wasn’t alone in that thought.
“The result of today, no one would have expected that,” Ludwig said. “Felix has shown he’s the man. He’s a great athlete. He’s always the favorite. But Felix is also human. He makes mistakes.”
There’s been 33 men who have represented USA Luge in singles at the Olympics, with a combined 48 appearances between them. The average finish among them had been 19th, with only seven top-10 showings. Adam Heidt finished fourth in 2002, Tony Benshoof was fourth in 2006, and those were as close as the Americans had ever been to the medal stand in this event.
Finally, Mazdzer gave the U.S. what it sought for so long.
“It’s great for sure,” Benshoof said moments after the result went final. “Happy for the team and Mazdzer. Anything can happen at an Olympics, for sure.”
Mazdzer was 13th in his Olympic debut in 2010, 13th again at the Sochi Games four years ago and came into the Pyeongchang Olympics after a less-than-scintillating 18th-place showing in this season’s overall World Cup standings. He said three weeks ago that he never felt worse about where he was on the sled, and vowed to find his way again.
Did he ever, and in a hurry.
“Medal or nothing,” Mazdzer said.
Medal it was.