PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — One thing about elite athletes is that they know too much about their sports, and about their performances, to fool themselves. When things go wrong and it’s their fault, they know.
Summer Britcher is an elite athlete. In luge, she set a track record here earlier this week. She is good enough to be the reason her relay team wins a medal. On Thursday night, no amount of consolation could convince her she hadn’t cost her team one.
The United States finished fourth in the luge team relay, behind bronze medalist Austria by one-tenth of a second. That sounds agonizingly close, and it is, but it also what happens in luge. When the Americans moved ahead of Italy, into the top position, the doubles tandem of Matthew Mortensen and Jayson Terdiman erased a deficit and crossed the line two-thousandths of a second faster. The slightest mistake is everything.
For the U.S., any segment of the relay team could have made the difference — it was further off the pace after Chris Mazdzer followed Britcher than after Britcher completed her race. But Britcher placed the blame on her shoulders. She knew she had made a mistake. Around one turn, she let her speed get away from her, and she had to tap her foot on the ice to stabilize herself. It wasn’t a disaster, but it was enough.
As Britcher walked with her teammates through a series of interviews, she expressed clear and insightful thoughts, but never broke from a glum countenance.
“I’m a little bit upset with it,” Britcher said. “I feel really bad for my teammates. But, you know, that’s racing. Mistakes happen. Sometimes, you got to risk to get that finish you want. And sometimes you just don’t get it.”
“We’re all proud of you,” Terdiman said, patting Britcher on the shoulder.
The event, contested for the first time at the Olympics four years ago in Sochi, adds wrinkles not found in other luge races. Every slider pushes off from the women’s start, an awkward challenge for the men. As sleds cross the finish line, the racers must reach up with their fists and hit a touch pad, at which the next sled, back at the start, takes off. Teams race in a woman-man-doubles sequence.
For a brief moment, it seemed the Americans might win a medal. They stood in first with only three teams left, and for that they could thank Mortensen and Terdiman. In the lexicon of luge, Mortensen and Terdiman are called “bottom-gainers” — a sled that picks up speed at the very end of the track. They were off the Italians at every checkpoint, until they crossed the finish line.
“To see that red to green is such a cool feeling,” Mazdzer said.
But Britcher’s toe-tap had left the door open for teams that needed little advantage. Canada dusted the Americans’ time with a flawless run. Austria had a couple of bobbles, but after almost three miles of racing, it ended up one-tenth of a second faster. The Germans, heavily favored, blew away every other team.
Luge, mostly, is an individual pursuit. The new relay event brings a different element. Terdiman called relay “the best thing in sports,” because it lets him — typically an athlete who competes solo — be part of a team. The flip side of that is that the event gives competitors teammates to let down. That’s how Britcher felt Thursday.
“I feel really lucky to be part of a sport with such incredible people, for the most part, across the board,” Britcher said. “When we missed out on the medal up there, I was crying a little bit. Through those tears, I was genuinely happy for my peers, that they found success. I think that’s something really unique in the sport of luge and how small this community is.”