Germany’s Loch the man to beat in luge
KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia (AP) — It’s good to be Felix Loch.
The defending luge Olympic champion, he enjoys fame and the unwavering support and affection of his German countrymen, who marvel at the 24-year-old’s controlled mastery of a sled hurtling down an icy track at nearly 90 mph.
However, his celebrity comes with a downside, too. Everyone wants to dethrone the king on the hill.
Loch knows he’s a marked man with a giant target on his skintight sliding suit. And as he prepared to try and repeat his winning performance from four years ago at the Vancouver Games, he was asked if he’s feeling any added pressure.
“No,” he said, shrugging his muscular shoulders and smiling. “The good thing for me is that I have a gold medal at home.”
He may soon have another.
On Saturday, Loch and the rest of the men’s luge field will take their first two runs down the Sanki Sliding Center track, a trickier yet far less dangerous descent than the one used in Whistler, British Columbia, in 2010. The competition will conclude with two more runs on Sunday.
By the time it ends, if there’s anyone but Loch standing on the top podium when medals are passed out, seismic shock waves will be felt throughout the snowcapped Caucasus Mountains. After all, Loch dominated the World Cup circuit by winning five of nine races this season.
“It’s Felix Loch and everybody else,” U.S. luger Chris Mazdzer said, stating the consensus among the competition. “When Felix Loch wants to win, he wins.”
The latest in a long line of German sliding royalty, Loch was placed on a sled not long after taking his first steps.
He was groomed to slide by his father, a luger for East Germany at the 1984 Sarajevo Games, and by Georg Hackl, the legendary German luger and the only three-time Olympic champion who now serves as Loch’s confidant and coach.
“For me, it’s really good to have Georg,” Loch said following a practice run on Thursday. “We know each other really well, we work well together and I think that’s the biggest reason my last six years have been really good.”
At 20, Loch became the youngest gold medalist in luge and he’s won a world title in singles and team relay four times since 2008.
To repeat as Olympic champ and continue his country’s dominance in luge — Germany has won nine of the 13 golds awarded since 1964 — he’ll have to fend off two sliding “seniors,” Italy’s Armin Zoeggeler and Russia’s Albert Demchenko, competing in their sixth and seventh games, respectively.
Known as “The Cannibal” for the way he devours competitors, Zoeggeler is looking to add a sixth medal to his Olympic collection, which started with a bronze at Lillehammer 20 years ago. Now 40, he’s still on top of his game and the envy of sliders less than half his age.
“He’s perfect on a sled,” said 18-year-old Tucker West, the youngest ever member of the U.S. team. “You can’t find a flaw with him going down.”
If he finishes in the top three, Zoeggeler, the gold medalist in 2002 and 2006, will become the first winter Olympian to win medals in six straight games.
Incredibly, the 42-year-old Demchenko remains among the elite in luge 22 years after his Olympic career began at the Albertville Games.
Sentimental picks, both he and Zoeggeler figure to be in the medal mix the next two days.
“Those guys are amazing,” said Canada’s Sam Edney. “They’re true athletes in every way. It’s not like they’re both old, overweight guys. They’re both in top form and always consistently pushing themselves to be better. They’re both constantly ranked in the top. If I can be racing when I’m 40, I’d love to because those guys have set an example that you can do it.”
Four years ago, the tragic death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili cast a pall over the Vancouver Games. The 21-year-old died when he lost control of his sled and was thrown from the track, striking a steel support pole during a final training run just hours before the opening ceremonies.
In the aftermath of his fatal accident, the Whistler course was adjusted to reduce speeds and Sochi organizers designed the 17-curve Sanki track with three “uphill” sections to help prevent another serious mishap.
Though gone, Kumaritashvili remains part of luge’s tight-knit family.
“We will never forget Nodar and his Olympic dream and his family,” Edney said. “The luge community will always have him on our minds and it is time to reflect, it’s four years since it happened. We’ll all be racing with Nodar’s Olympic aspirations in our hearts.”