The Sochi Games have already produced a first for luge: Erin Hamlin became the first American to win a singles medal in the sport when she took home the bronze. But there’s another first to look forward to on Feb. 13 — the inaugural team relay event, which livestreams at 11:15 a.m. ET on NBCOlympics.com. Before he left for Russia, NBC luge analyst Duncan Kennedy, a three-time Olympian who’s also the technical director for USA Luge, told EW why he thinks it’s going to be “off the charts exciting.” And yes, he does expect the U.S. to medal. “I’m puttin’ that out there,” he said. “I don’t care. People are like, ‘Don’t curse it.’ Forget that. I expect it, and it’ll be a shame if we don’t. It’s right there for us if everyone’s on their game. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be on the podium.”
How it works: The team relay consists of a country’s fastest woman, man, and doubles team. It’s a normal start for the female slider, who goes first: She sits in the handles, and once the track is cleared and the light goes green, she has 30 seconds to prep herself and go. As soon as she leaves, they close gates right in front of the handles and the male slider takes his position. The last two split times on the woman’s run, there’s an audible beep warning the male athlete who is waiting at the start. “When that double beep goes off, he knows he has a certain amount of time, roughly 15 seconds or so, before she crosses the finish line,” Kennedy explained. “Now when she crosses the finish line, it’s not just her tripping the finish eye. There’s actually a pad hanging over the track after the normal finish line. She has to reach up and hit that pad, which opens the gate at the top. So it’s a reaction time thing where the male athlete, as soon as that gate opens, has to pop out of the handles and go.” The gate is closed behind him, the doubles team takes it place, and the process is repeated. When the doubles team hits the pad, it stops the clock and gives the team its total time. Kennedy expects NBC to use a split-screen.
What can make it good TV: In their normal individual event, sliders don’t have to worry if they’re slightly out of control and skidding around in the outrun after the finish line (or even coming off the final turn approaching it). But in the relay, people may miss the pad. “If you miss the pad, the gate doesn’t open. No one goes. That’s it. It’s happened a lot more frequently than you would imagine,” Kennedy said. “It’s very critical that you’re nice and clean because you’re sitting up at 80 miles per hour trying to hit this pad — at your peril if you miss it and your teammates come down to greet you.”
Another trouble spot: The gate isn’t too far from the start handles. ”If the slider touches the gate at all, they’re disqualified. We’ve seen that happen a few times this season.” Kennedy said. “You have to take whatever you’re normally used to at the start and push it back and make sure your foot doesn’t tap that gate, because that’s the end of it.” Also noteworthy: Everyone in the relay starts at the same spot, but the men have a higher one for their individual event. “So the women and doubles are used to it, as far as the lines from that start, but for the male sliders it’s completely new,” Kennedy said.
Bonus question: Why are the Germans so dominant in luge? In Sochi, they’ve taken gold in all three individual events (with a silver in women’s to boot). “Luge to Germany is really what baseball is to the U.S. in a lot of ways. A good example is they have elementary school championships,” Kennedy said. “I’ve walked into school gymnasiums over there, and there’s just hundreds of luge sleds stacked up in the gym with wheels on waiting to go out and find their next gold medalist. They just keep pumpin’ them out.”