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‘A human connection’: When a U.S. luger was struggling, a Russian offered his sled

Chris Mazdzer said lugers “never” offer up their sleds, but when he needed a change, a Russian opponent helped him out. (Wong Maye-E/Associated Press)

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — In his efforts to break out of a slump and get back on top, Chris Mazdzer, the surprising new owner of an Olympic silver medal, received a helping hand from perhaps the unlikeliest of places — a competitor from the Russian team.

Mazdzer appeared at a news conference Monday morning in PyeongChang and said he barely slept the night before, still buzzing from the competition where he shocked many and became the United States’ first-ever Olympic medalist in men’s singles luge. It’s hard to believe how far he’d come in just the past few weeks. In January, he’d slid to No. 18 in the world rankings, felt stuck in a rut that was coming to define his entire season.

“What kills me and has been driving me wild for over a year now is the fact that no matter what I do,” he posted on social media three weeks earlier, “my top speed and ability to be with the top guys in the world has disappeared, and I don’t know why. … There comes a point where giving it everything you have and believing in yourself starts to fade away and I am almost to that point.”

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Other lugers had taken notice, and Mazdzer revealed Monday that one of his Russian rivals offered the use of his sled. The Russian racer felt his own Olympic hopes were fading, Mazdzer said, but he wanted to help the American veteran do his best.

How often does a luger offer up his most important piece of equipment? “Never,” Mazdzer said. It’d be like a NASCAR driver lending out his car or a sprinter passing along his lucky running shoes.

“It’s like, ‘This is your competitive advantage; this is everything. Are you sure?’ ” Mazdzer recalled. “And in some broken language of smiles and handshakes and high-fives, it’s like, ‘Yeah, just do it.’ ”

After the Russian Olympic Committee was busted for a systemic doping operation at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, many athletes have been villainized in the months and years leading into the PyeongChang Games. The Russian luger who lent out his sled did eventually make the Olympics, one of three who competed in the men’s singles competition here under the Olympic Athletes from Russia banner, but Mazdzer declined to reveal his name.

As he prepped for his third Winter Games, Mazdzer, 29, was training and competing in Latvia and eagerly took the Russian rival up on his offer. The Olympics were just around the corner — pretty late for a major equipment change — but at that point, he figured, he had little to lose. Plus, the sled looked good.

“It was, like, a legitimate sled,” he said. “Not like, ‘Oh, we’ll give you a sled, and it’s something that’s 20 years old.’ It was something they’re using this year.”

The track in Sigulda, Latvia, is considered highly technical. Mazdzer quickly learned he was too big for the unfamiliar sled and couldn’t control it the way he’d like. Even though he came to PyeongChang and reached the podium on a sled of his own, he’s grateful that others were trying so hard to help him snap out of his slump.

“It’s such a unique bond on the luge circuit. I don’t know how to relate it,” he said, “but we all look out for each other. We all want the best for each other. … I think what it shows is that we do care about each other. There is a human connection that we have, that crosses countries, that cross cultures, and sport is an amazing way to accomplish that.”

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