The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A luger’s last Olympic shot never came. He gave his sled to the guys he lost to.

Zachary Di Gregorio and Sean Hollander take a training run aboard the sled belonging to Jayson Terdiman. (REUTERS/Edgar Su)

YANQING, China — Over the past week, Jayson Terdiman keeps hearing his tablet buzz in the wee hours of the morning. He knows what the notifications mean. He will open the screen and watch two American lugers lying on a black sled with sky blue runners and bows shaped like horns, gliding over ice painted with the Olympic rings. The lugers are Zachary DiGregorio and Sean Hollander, two 21-year-olds who took the place earmarked for Terdiman when they seized upon his singular devastation. The sled is his.

Terdiman poured all of himself into making the Beijing Olympics. The 33-year-old planned one final act after 22 years of becoming one of America’s best sliders, one more shot to redeem a fourth-place finish that gnawed at him, one last chance to say goodbye to the sport he loved. He is instead at home in Lake Placid, N.Y., grieving for the end of his career.

At a race last month in Latvia, Terdiman and doubles partner Chris Mazdzer needed to finish first among three American sleds to qualify for the Olympics. Given the experience and ability of the competitors, that seemed like a formality. A crash turned it into a nightmare, one that shattered Terdiman’s farewell designs.

“I wouldn’t even call it a memory yet, man,” Terdiman said this week. “I’m still living it.”

Terdiman and Mazdzer’s mistake allowed DiGregorio and Hollander, a promising pair whom no one expected to make these Olympics, to nab the U.S. spot. Before they left Latvia, Terdiman met with DiGregorio and Hollander and made a gesture unheard-of at luge’s highest level.

He knew his sled, a piece of fine-tuned equipment that cost thousands of his own dollars, was the fastest in the United States. It was the second one Terdiman had built by André Florschütz, a retired German Olympic doubles medalist. The first helped Terdiman and his then-partner, Matt Mortensen, finish third in the 2016-17 World Cup standings and fourth at the PyeongChang Olympics, at once a major accomplishment and a massive disappointment, just one spot off the podium. So when Terdiman decided to take one last shot at the Olympics — this time with Mazdzer, who won a surprise singles silver in PyeongChang — he went back to Florschütz and commissioned a new sled at the cost of roughly $30,000.

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It was the one Terdiman intended to ride in his final Olympic runs, maybe even to a spot on the medal podium. A day after those hopes and plans unexpectedly combusted, Terdiman gave it away. On Wednesday night at Yanqing National Sliding Centre, the sled will be there, with DiGregorio and Hollander aboard.

“It meant the world to us that we had a teammate that wanted USA to do that great,” DiGregorio said. “I’ll take that with me for the rest of my life.”

Terdiman always had cared about the entire U.S. program — as a teenager, DiGregorio had noticed that Terdiman was one of the senior athletes who somehow always remembered his name. Terdiman didn’t want to leave the program without doubles experience, so when the other five U.S. lugers retired after PyeongChang, he decided to take one more run.

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He and Mazdzer were by far the United States’ best doubles team, but as Mazdzer recovered from a broken foot in the fall, they could not accumulate the results necessary to qualify through the U.S. process. They would need to beat two other American sleds at a Nation’s Cup race in Sigulda, Latvia — a one-run event held early in the week of a World Cup race. Even that week, Terdiman gave DiGregorio and Hollander tips on how to navigate Sigulda’s turns.

The stakes did not deter Terdiman and Mazdzer from attacking the course; they wore brand-new suits to improve their speed. Usually not great starters, Terdiman and Mazdzer roared off the handles. Down the track, their splits suggested dominance. As they neared Curve 12, they sped a full tenth of a second ahead of the eventual winner’s pace.

“We were going all out,” Terdiman said. “We were really pushing position, really trying to let the sled flow.”

The mistaken approach into 12 guaranteed they would enter late into Curve 13, an exceedingly tight right-hand turn. The sled lost pressure, veering up the track when it should have dropped. In full control one instant, Terdiman and Mazdzer were suddenly and irretrievably fighting a battle against gravity. The sled crashed into the side wall, flipping them to their faces as it skidded into 14.

They knew immediately. In sliding sports, doomed athletes cannot slink off the court or jog to the locker room. For the longest 40 seconds of Terdiman’s life, he and Mazdzer slid down the track, stunned and distraught.

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At the bottom they embraced, a quiet commemoration of four years competing together across the world. Mazdzer still had a singles run an hour later that could qualify him for Beijing individually. Terdiman had no next race. He changed his clothes and trudged to the top of the track. He congratulated DiGregorio and Hollander and consoled Duncan Segger and Dana Kellogg, a U.S. sled that finished one spot behind.

“I was still in my own wreck,” Terdiman said. “But it’s still my teammates. I want to share in their successes with them as often as I can.”

Terdiman went for a walk alone, trying to think about what came next. After lunch, he met with U.S. coaches. He sensed the coaches might ask him if they could use his sled. “I didn’t even let them get it out of their mouths,” Terdiman said.

Two days after Sigulda, DiGregorio and Hollander flew to Park City, Utah. Terdiman joined them the next day. They made adjustments — Hollander is slightly taller than Terdiman. But all the sled’s balance points worked perfectly. It went so smoothly that it almost scared Terdiman.

“It is a sled that has won medals,” U.S. Coach Robert Fegg said. “You step way differently on that sled already, right there.”

DiGregorio and Hollander felt faster from their first test run. It slid smoother and cut less ice entering corners. At a minicamp in Park City, on the first day of training runs here, they set a personal best even without a smooth run.

Last month, DiGregorio and Hollander were 21-year-olds with promising futures, eyes on Milan in 2026. Now, they are Olympians. For Hollander, who will turn 22 on Friday, the reality did not sink in until he boarded the plane for China.

“You see all the other countries, and you’re like, ‘It’s really happening,’ ” Hollander said. “It was a surreal experience.”

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Over two weeks in China, victorious athletes will share the sacrifices made and adversities surmounted in pursuit of their dreams. The athletes who lose here, and so many who didn’t even make it, paid the same costs and suffered the same tolls.

“I want people to understand that things are very stressful for athletes through the selection process, whether you make it or not,” Terdiman said. “At the end, we all go through this weird, post-Olympic depression. The mental health of athletes is incredibly fragile. We go through this for so long with tunnel vision, and then it just ends, and we’re left thinking, ‘What now?’ ”

For Terdiman, he said, that is “the million-dollar question.” He wants to get into luge coaching, to pass 22 years of knowledge to the next generation of American lugers. Fegg said the U.S. plans to involve him in the junior program. Terdiman announced in December he would retire after the Beijing Games, and he doubts he will reconsider.

“It’s a very small pinhole on a very dark canvas,” Terdiman said. “I don’t see it happening, but I don’t have a crystal ball, either.”

DiGregorio and Hollander still have many years left to be athletes. Wednesday night, they will sit on a black sled with sky-blue runners and push themselves down a sheet of ice. Terdiman will watch from the other side of the world, one part of him there on the shimmering track, another piece of him forming slowly, painfully into memory.

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