LAKE PLACID - Vancouver Olympians Julia Clukey and Chris Mazdzer won the first of two seeding races Friday morning on Mount Van Hoevenberg, and simultaneously grabbed the halfway lead in the Norton USA Luge National Championships.
The final two legs, which will also count as a separate seeding race in the three-event-in-two-day format, are set for today.
The doubles team of Matt Mortensen and Preston Griffall raced to gold Friday. The doubles national title will only be contested with a pair of heats today.
Calling these runs "heats" was appropriate given the spate of unseasonably warm weather that hit the region. Temperatures rose to 66 degrees when the race concluded and exceeded 70 at mid-day.
Clukey's win was most intriguing as she continues her comeback from surgery to correct Arnold-Chiari Syndrome two seasons ago. The procedure took eight centimeters of bone from the base of her skull to relive chronic headaches and fatigue.
Clukey opened a lead of 0.17 seconds in the first leg over Erin Hamlin, who seeks her sixth consecutive Norton national crown.
"In the second run I felt I got the start OK, but the run was not as smooth as I had hoped," said Clukey. "I had some problems in (turns) 10, 11 and 12. But I'm really happy. I'd never won a race here during the national events. So this is something I'll use going forward for the World Cup season."
The Augusta, Maine native, who also trained earlier this month in Lillehammer, Norway and Sigulda, Latvia, recorded two heats totaling 1 minute, 29.907 seconds. She defeated Hamlin, the 2009 World Champion and two-time Olympian, by 0.143 of a second down the three-quarters of a mile course.
Hamlin, of Remsen, was clocked in 1:30.050. Emily Sweeney, of Suffield, Conn., took third in 1:30.183.
Mazdzer, of Saranac Lake, is also on a winning streak as he closes in on his fifth United States title and fourth in a row. In picking up the two fastest times of the race, Mazdzer posted a time of 1:46.374 for two trips down the 1-mile men's layout.
"They weren't my best runs of the week," said the seeding race winner and national championship leader. "I think the (softer) ice threw everyone off because we didn't have that in training.
"There's a lot to improve upon still. I hope to do much better tomorrow. I was disappointed with myself going through (turn) 19. I know how to be really relaxed on this track so I can get away with a lot. If I can connect the dots, I bet I can really fly tomorrow. I'm smooth and relaxed but my lines are off."
Tucker West, of Ridgefield, Conn., the winner of the past two summer start championships, was second in 1:46.604. Aiden Kelly, of West Islip, took third with 1:46.861.
Veteran doubles sliders Mortensen and Griffall held off Jake Hyrns and Andrew Sherk for the seeding race win by only 0.094, setting up an exciting national championship event today. The visible difference in the performances could be found in the start where Mortensen and Griffall - bigger, stronger and more experienced - had the fastest runs of both heats. The winners were at least a tenth of a second quicker off the start handles, and used that en route to the win, as they overcame the need for equipment suitable for warmer ice.
"We were trying to test some steels for softer ice," said Griffall, a 2006 Olympian from Salt Lake City, Utah. "We couldn't get them running right so we're with our usual steels, which aren't ideal for these conditions. Fortunately, we had some fast starts and held off the young bucks, Jake and Andrew. It was a good start to the season and we'll get back out there tomorrow."
Mortensen and Griffall are working with a new sled, built over the summer. In addition, head coach Miro Zayonc, 1983 world champion, fine-tuned Mortensen's position on the sled by guiding him on how to better keep his arms and elbows positioned properly.
In a sport timed to the thousandth of a second, all of it - steels, sleds, and body position - determines the race result.
"Jake and Andrew are really good competitors," Mortensen said. "They are right on our tails and push us to be better. If they had a little faster start it might be a different story. We have to work on what we're good at, which is a good fast start and solid runs. That's what wins races."
The winners registered a two-run total of 1:30.405. Hyrns, of Muskegon, Mich. and Sherk, of Fort Washington, Pa., coming back from January 2012 injuries, were clocked in 1:30.499.
Ty Andersen, a 2012 Youth Olympic Games gold medalist from Alpine, Utah, and Anthony Espinoza, of Park City, Utah grabbed the bronze in 1:32.267. Andersen and Espinoza enter their first full season together.
All competitors in the three disciplines will return to the Olympic Sports Complex this morning with those things in mind as they stake their claim to a Norton national victory.
In addition, there will be a fourth race that will also be an attention-getter as four teams will enter the team relay. This is one of the new events on the 2014 Sochi Olympic program.
Today's race time is 8:30 a.m., with live action, commentary and interviews, once again, provided by West World Media and web streamed via www.usaluge.org.