How Chris Mazdzer Created a Powerful Personal Moment and Made Olympic Luge History
It’s no secret that getting to the Olympics requires years of hard work and dedication. Once there and facing competition with the best in the world, however, one understands that rising to the top and winning a medal requires a last great and final push.
For Chris Mazdzer, Saranac Lake hometown hero and silver medalist in men’s singles luge in the 2018 Games in PyeongChang, the greatest accomplishment of his career actually came in the moments before winning that silver medal. There at the top of the luge track, after all the hard work and great personal sacrifice, he experienced a powerful moment of perspective that brought him great personal joy and made the many years of struggle worthwhile. Only then came the medal – the first medal in history for an American in men’s singles luge.
How It All Began
In his early years, Chris’ family lived in Peru, NY, just 45 minutes outside Lake Placid. Chris loved winter, especially sledding, and at eight years old, he recalls seeing the film “Cool Runnings” about four Jamaican bobsledders’ dream of competing in the Winter Olympics. “It looked like the most fun you could have,” says Chris, “and we were really fortunate that the Olympic Authority had a program for kids eight to 13, where they could do bobsled and luge.”
At that time there were separate tracks at Mt Van Hoevenberg for bobsled and luge, and both programs ran at the same time. Chris began with bobsled but quickly realized he could get more runs in each session if he were doing luge. Says Chris, “Bobsled was the popular sport at the time because of the movie, but the turnover was slower, and you could only drive two runs a night. But there was this other sport called luge, and you could get in ten runs a night. It was like ultimate sledding and a ton of fun.”
Today, after more than two decades in the sport and going to four Olympics, he’s still having a ton of fun. But he’s also got far more on his plate than most athletes. He and his wife, Mara, have a 2-and-a-half-year-old child, Nicolai, and another due in April, plus Chris is managing a full-time job in addition to training and competition. About this seemingly overwhelming load of responsibilities he says, “It’s all very possible, but you have to be committed. You have to love what you do and make sacrifices. I’m lucky because I’m at an advanced point in my career where I don’t have to focus so much on the little things in luge. I understand what I have to do.”
Luge as Medicine
That a perfect luge run isn’t possible is something experienced luge athletes agree on. They key, according to Chris, is to learn to accept imperfection and fix the mistakes in real time faster than one’s competitors. Doing that requires a great deal of preparation and practice. Chris says he always has a detailed plan on how to attack the track he’s on, how to drive the corners, and how to adjust to the little things over the full length of every track.
Success in implementing such a plan is being full present in every moment during training and competition. With years of experience and by visualizing each run again and again, Chris can make hundreds of subtle, very specific corrections in the course of a single 40 second run. And he makes them with an in-the-zone mindset that allows him to do it all instantly and instinctively. “The key is making changes on the fly,” he says. “I could tell you 10 different ways I’m going to drive a corner, so depending on how I enter it and depending on conditions, I know I can make that instant correction.”
“There are few things like luge,” says Chris. It’s a challenging sport on many levels, yet he sees the intensity of each run as the best thing about it. “I think of luge as my medicine,” he says. “It requires you to be all in. All in the moment. Making it to the bottom of the track clean gives you such a powerful feeling. There’s a learning it is a process that takes years. You’re constantly challenging yourself, but you can see the growth from within. It’s a great way to learn about yourself.”
Luge is very much a mental sport, according to Chris. One necessary strength is the ability to overcome or even harness one’s fear. He says, “Fear is something that increases your adrenaline and increases your focus. But being scared is one thing and uncertain is another. Understanding that difference is important in this sport. I figured out how to understand and harness fear to use it as a power to move forward.”
The Motivation of a Champion
Herb Brooks and the 1980 Miracle on Ice hockey team are among history’s most compelling examples of the power of motivation. Brooks successfully led his team to empower their play by changing their mindset from being intimidated to knowing they could beat the best. In doing so he harnessed a mental process that initiated, guided, and sustained his team’s behavior and performance to achieving what almost everyone else believed was impossible.
Through his experience, Chris has adopted a similar philosophy to impacting how he thinks, feels, trains, and competes. “I train like I’m behind. By thinking there are many amazing athletes more talented and stronger than I am, I am motivated to train like everyone is better than me. I have to push myself. But I also know when it comes to big competitions like the Olympics, that underdog mentality isn’t a good thing.”
So when competition time comes around, Chris switches that thinking around. “You have to believe you’re the best. If I really put in the time and do everything I possibly can, there’s nothing to be worried about. So for me it’s train like an underdog, but race like a champion. Believe in yourself, even when others don’t.”
The Lake Placid Advantage
Chris also views the track at Mt Van Hoevenberg in Lake Placid as a powerful competitive advantage, too. “There are a couple aspects to this track that make athletes who train here really good at luge,” says Chris. “This track teaches you to drive.”
Two factors come into play. The first, he says, is the weather. Those who live here are familiar with the changing weather conditions. Big temperature swings often serve up vastly different sliding conditions, including the really cold days that make for especially difficult luge conditions. When the ice gets colder, it also gets harder, and luge blades lose much of their ability to steer and make corrections. “Those conditions force you into being a better driver,” says Chris. “When you learn in that difficult environment, you’re fine when you go elsewhere.”
The second factor is the intensity of the run. Mt Van Hoevenberg’s relentless curves give sliders shorter transitions in comparison to other tracks around the world, which are more flowing. According to Chris, Lake Placid sliders learn to absorb the entrances and exits of curves faster and to do it with the strength of their body rather than the sled. “It teaches you to make smoother transitions, which is a key to success,” he says. “If you can master this track, you can be a good luge athlete anywhere.”
That Most Powerful Moment
Failure is something all humans are forced to reckon with. But for athletes in a breakneck sport, shooting down mountains on a narrow path of ice with the line between success and failure measured in thousandths of a second, frustration is always going to be something closer to home.
With confidence in his voice Chris affirms, “I am not defined by my results as an individual. Luge is what I do. It’s not who I am, and making that distinction took a long time.” He was finally able to fully internalize that understanding one day – one very big day in his life – after hitting what felt like a low point in his career.
Feeling it all teetering on a precarious edge and suffering financially from pursuing his athletic dreams, he was looking at the 2018 Winter Games as his last competition. “No one thought I could succeed in the Olympics,” says Chris. “I was probably the only one who really knew I could. A few weeks beforehand, I was at a low point, but I was able to put it all together when it mattered most.”
In that moment, he was at the top a luge track, gripping the metal handles athletes use to pull on and propel themselves forward to begin their runs. Being “at the handles” is a tense moment for any athlete, with all the anticipation of so many months of training built up and on the line. “Everyone thinks it’s the finish line and the silver medal, but my greatest accomplishment was actually at the handles on my fourth run in 2018,” says Chris, referring to those fleeting moments before his fourth and final run in the PyeongChang Winter Olympics.
“If I were to mess up,” Chris explains, “I’d lose my funding, lose my health insurance. I sold my car earlier that year to have cash to by steels for my sled. Without much money in the bank, I could live a month or two, and I’d have to retire.” So it was with the weight of the world on top of him and 21 years of hard work and sacrifice behind him that he still had to face all the uncertainty and pressure of making this last Olympic run. Everything came down to that one moment.
“It was very powerful,” he says. “I actually cried in my warmup. I’d done everything I could, and not a lot of people get to be in this position in the Olympics. I felt zero pressure, and I actually smiled when I was on the handles for that fourth run because I knew I had it before I even pulled off. That was something I never felt before. No matter what, I’ve got this. I believed I was going to be okay no matter what happened. Everything felt so good. It felt so right.”
That moment Chris knows today is his greatest accomplishment. A personal viewpoint so powerful it let him forget the pressure and enjoy this precious Olympic experience. “Internally, I knew who I was as a person, and was not going to be defined by the results. It was really cool going into it with that perspective.”
Today, as Chris looks forward to the start of the FIL World Cup Luge season on his home track at Mt Van Hoevenberg, he’s especially excited. “My wife and I have baby number two coming in April. I really love being a dad. It’s very rewarding, very fulfilling. They don’t always go hand in hand, but I love this sport, and I love my family.” Continuing to train hard, work full-time, and taking everything day aby day, he’s now eyeing his fifth Olympic Winter Games.
The Big Announcement
On Monday, December 4, the week of the season opening FIL World Cup Luge event in Lake Placid, Chris announced he would be retiring immediately following the Lake Placid competition. Evidently, he wanted this one to be his last. “After 25 incredible years of hurtling myself down icy chutes in a spandex suit,” he posted on social media, “I realize that every adrenaline-packed career eventually comes to an end. As I hang up my sled and look back at my luge journey, it’s clear that this sport has been the greatest teacher in my life, shaping me in ways I never thought possible.”
He made this announcement with mixed emotions, it being a sport he loved dearly. “From the exhilarating feeling of being out of control at 90 MPH to the incredible friendships and camaraderie forged while traversing the globe,” he says, “luge has changed me for the better. But I am so excited to be raising a family and the doors that will open after I close the door on this incredible chapter in my life.” No doubt, those of us cheering him on through the years, all the athletes and coaches, and the sport itself, will miss Chris’ cheerful presence and his irrepressible spirit of competition on luge tracks around the world.