It was a particularly unhappy coincidence.
Just as I was asking Erin Hamlin, the U.S. flagbearer and four-time Olympian, about how she was handling the sliding track’s notoriously complicated turn nine, Austrian luger Birgit Platzer went pin-balling in that turn. She bounced off two walls, caught air and came completely off her sled, skidding along the ice on her back for several more meters.
Everyone at the Alpensia Sliding Centre sucked in air at once, including Hamlin, who stopped the interview and turned around to face the television to check on Platzer’s condition. “Oh no,” she said.
Last September in Park City, Utah, Hamlin was the first to mention the difficulties of turn nine, but it quickly became a theme. The turn itself is a highly technical, unorthodox sector of the Alpensia track where a turn emerges not into a straightaway or another turn, as is typical, but into a serpentine straight, known as a chicane.
The Alpensia’s chicane isn’t the only one in the world. The Whistler Track in British Columbia features one, as does the track in Lake Placid, New York, where many US sliders train. What’s particular about this chicane is that, unlike the others, it is actually going in the same direction as the turn, not against it, which creates a sideways pressure on the sled.
The result, said the U.S.’s Tucker West, is that sliders come out of the curve “pointing straight at a wall.”
Hamlin said in September that the number of times she had gotten that turn just right “were few and far in between.” And after her second official run Monday night (she eventually finished the event in sixth place), she turned back from watching Platzer’s crash and confessed she still hadn’t totally figured it out.
“It’s still very difficult as you just witnessed. It’s given me trouble all week,” she said, adding that she was taking a fairly improvisational approach to the curve. “I just want to get out of it, so however that happens I’m great with.”
The U.S.’s Taylor Morris, who finished the men’s singles competition in 18th, said the U.S. team had developed two basic approaches to the curve during their training runs in the days before the competition.
“There’s the idea that when you come off of eight and into nine you can be set up on the right-hand side and hit the corner pretty early and that kind of knocks you flat through the middle,” is how he described the first option. The second was riskier, “you set up on the left and get this massive height and kind of shoot through that gap. Instead if steering around it you make it as straight of a line as possible.”
In a sport where races are decided by hundredths of a second, trying the second approach is almost irresistible. “If you have some faith in yourself and a little trust in your equipment, you can make that second line work,” Morris said, adding that the Alpensia chicane slightly mimics that of the Lake Placid track. Thus far at these games, the turn has proved decisive. Silver medalist Chris Mazdzer said after his final run that his number one goal had been to nail turn nine every time he went down the track, “I knew if I was off a little bit I’d come out completely sideways and out of control.”
Sliding legend Felix Loch was denied his chance at a record-tying three-peat because he got the ninth wrong on his final run, “I did a mistake out of Corner 9, and that is one part of the track you are not allowed to do a mistake.”
The weather has played a role in making the turn difficult as well. Cold temperatures, worsened by high winds, have made the ice especially hard. Making driving the sled out of the turn more difficult because of increased speeds. Those who navigate the turn have been setting and re-setting track records at Alpensia, those who haven’t, either lose critical time, or like Platzer, lose their sleds.
Summer Britcher of the US, who set the track record in women’s singles with a time of 46.132 seconds on her second run (she eventually finished 19th) tried to describe the effect the turn is having on the sliders. “A lot of people are having trouble there because we’ve had so much trouble in the past. You get this negative feeling in your head. You almost get this PTSD of the curve.”
And with doubles and the team relay remaining in luge, there’s surely more drama to come.