SOMEWHERE ATOP A MOUNTAIN IN PYEONGCHANG, South Korea—We’re on top of a mountain in South Korea, the wind chill is minus-5 degrees Fahrenheit, and two hyperpatriotic women have just taken their tops off.
Just another night in the life of the Luge Family.
As rabid fanbases go, you’re going to have to work hard to find one more dedicated and insane than the crew that follows lugers, both from Team USA and other countries. Sure, Steelers Nation and their Terrible Towels travel all over America, but the Luge Family follows its favored sons and daughters all over the planet. The Green Bay Cheeseheads show up in snow and sleet, but the Luge Nation stands watch in an Ice Bowl every weekend. Bills Mafia sets itself on fire and dives through tables, but the Luge Family … well, the Luge Family can’t compare with that, because the mothers and fathers of champion lugers aren’t sociopaths.
But property damage is about the only thing this road-tripping crew of family and friends won’t do. They showed up at the Olympic Sliding Centre this week en masse, waving big-head cutouts, rattling cowbells and sounding vuvuzelas and whistles like it’s a perpetual New Year’s Eve. It’s a United Nations of drunken revelry here, with contingents from Canada, Germany, South Korea and half a dozen other nations busting out a tailgating game that could rival anything at Ole Miss or LSU. You’ll be proud to hear that the stars and stripes’ contingent upheld the classic American values of drinking, chanting and bellowing.
“We’re a family, all of us,” says Brett West, father of luger Tucker West. “We travel the world for the big races, the world championships, the Olympics. We’re good at this. We’re loud.”
Each of the three American lugers — Chris Mazdzer, Taylor Morris, and West — boasts an entire traveling entourage. Some have monogrammed jackets or hats. And some, like Mazdzer’s sisters, show their support by taking off their tops to reveal stars-and-stripes sports bras. As chilly as it is now, the Luge Family has handled worse.
“It’s been much colder than this [on other trips],” West says. “This is cold, but we’ve been in minus zero many times.”
But make no mistake: bare skin or not, it’s still cold as hell up here. During the race, the temperature with wind chill drops way below zero degrees Fahrenheit. So how does the Luge Family stay warm?
“Luge Hooch!” crows West. A combination of Bailey’s and Jameson’s that’s probably not scientifically measured, it’s a fine way to shut down most major nerve endings. Regrettably, by race’s end there was no Luge Hooch still available for this reporter to perform a scientific analysis of its warming properties.
“This is the third time we’ve been here, and it’s grown every time,” says Mike Gifis, a high school classmate of Mazdzer’s. “The energy is insane!”
“The volunteers love celebrating with us,” adds Neil Streiff, another former classmate. “They’re high-fiving right along with the rest of us.”
Individual luge races last less than a minute, but an entire round can run well over an hour. You’ve got to pace yourself, and the Luge Family has all this as tightly choreographed as a skater’s routine. There’s a full chant — “ooohhhhhWAAAAAAHHHH!!!!” — when the luger yanks themselves from the starting line into the chute. You cheer, in descending order of intensity, for the following:
1. Your racer
2. The other racers from your country
3. Everyone else
That last part is important. Everyone cheers for everyone else; there’s a kind of camaraderie that you’d never find in the bleachers in Tuscaloosa or Ann Arbor. Of course, you want your slider to win, but when the difference between gold and nothing is the literal blink of an eye, you know that today’s hero catches tomorrow’s bad break.
Watching luge is a strange experience, because in the celebration area, you don’t actually see any live luge racing. You’ve got to watch the entire race on the large televisions overhead, which robs the moment of its visceral intensity but allows the savvy viewers to pick up the exact moment when a luger drifts too high into a turn or cuts a corner too tight.
The finish line is several dozen yards back down the track; after crossing the line, lugers ride up a long uphill track to bleed off the momentum they’ve amassed throwing themselves down the side of a mountain. It’s a bit of a strange experience, watching the lugers onscreen and then seeing them show up live in front of you; it’d be like watching the Eagles run their Super Bowl trick-play Philly Special on TV and then having Nick Foles come jogging into your living room, still holding the ball.
As they arrive at the dismount area, the lugers can hear the crowd’s cheers, and that can cut both ways. When Mazdzer rolled in knowing that he’d clinched at least a bronze medal, he leaped off his sled before it even stopped moving, breaking protocol by hopping out of the chute to go slap hands and hug necks in the crowd. But when Germany’s Felix Loch, the fastest luger heading into the fourth round, wobbled and saw his gold medal evaporate, he just slid right through the finishing area, head down, as the three medalists and their teams celebrated right beside him.
As Mazdzer walked to the podium for the venue award ceremony, snow began to fall at the Sliding Centre, and the wind picked up, knifing right into the skin. But if you think that the Luge Family stopped celebrating for even a second, maybe you’ve had too much Luge Hooch. Or maybe, not enough.