There has never been a women’s luge athlete who has won more World Cup medals than Natalie Geisenberger. Same goes for world championship medals, same goes for Olympic medals.
Her resume is beyond compare.
So she’s the best ever to slide, right?
“No,” she says, adamantly. “I’m not the best.”
She may not think so, but plenty of people in the luge world think otherwise. There may no other athlete at the Pyeongchang Olympics — not Lindsey Vonn, not Mikaela Shiffrin, not Nathan Chen — more expected to win than Geisenberger, the star attraction of a juggernaut German luge program that has been miles ahead of the rest of the world for generations.
“I’m not one who looks to the number of races or being on the podium,” Geisenberger said .
Maybe she should. Here’s a baffling comparison: The United States, in its entire World Cup luge history, has 45 gold medals. Geisenberger has 43 golds in singles races alone, 64 when adding her appearances in relay events and 117 total medals just from World Cup events.
She has 12 world championship medals and three Olympic medals, both tying for the best ever. In Germany, she is considered an absolute sporting superstar — whether she wants the spotlight or not.
“The motivation is that I like what I do, I love what I do,” Geisenberger said. “I like the sport. I love to race against other people, to fight against myself and I like to be successful. I know the feeling to stand on the podium, on the top. I know the feeling when the national anthem is playing. I’m addicted to that feeling.”
Germans don’t win every race. It just seems that way. Geisenberger is the defending Olympic champion who won 13 medals in 13 races in World Cup singles competition this season. Two-time defending men’s Olympic champion Felix Loch led all men with eight singles medals. The doubles team of Toni Eggert and Sascha Benecken medaled in 12 of 13 events, winning gold in 10 of them.
Add up all the World Cup races from this winter, and the rest of the world won 17. Germany won 28.
“I don’t know what the magic ingredient is,” said U.S. women’s luge veteran Erin Hamlin, a two-time world champion and the 2014 Olympic women’s bronze medalist. “They’re competitors. They come out on race day and you can pretty much bet they’re going to go faster than they did all week in training. Happens all the time. They’re breaking track records almost every week.”
Loch is trying to be only the second man to win three consecutive Olympic luge gold medals. The other, of course, was a German — Georg Hackl did it in 1992, 1994 and 1998. Geisenberger could be the first woman to win three Olympic luge golds, after winning in singles and as part of the team relay at Sochi in 2014.
“I like the sport very much and that’s the important thing,” said Loch, who’s only 28 and plans on going through at least one more Olympic cycle. “I like sliding, the feeling, the speed. That’s what’s so cool about the sport.”
They make it seem so simple.
It is anything but. Luge is highly technical, with the quality of equipment every bit as important as the slider’s technique. The Germans have four tracks, which is more than any other nation, so they have the best home-ice advantage in the sport. And they’re an extremely well-funded program, which never hurts.
That, along with the widespread belief that they have some secrets to get the most out of their sleds, frustrates other sliders in countless ways.
Take Loch’s final run on the Americans’ home track in Lake Placid, New York, earlier this season: He bounced off walls, was late into some curves, didn’t exit some others on the fastest possible line, and all that often means a slider loses time. But Loch somehow crossed the line with one of the fastest times in the heat, which baffled some of his competitors.
“It’s tough to understand how that happens,” U.S. men’s veteran Chris Mazdzer said.
Geisenberger turns 30 on Monday, and could easily keep going through the 2022 Olympics if so inclined. If she knows what her future is, she’s not telling — though it is expected that she’ll be back next season since the world championships are in Germany.
For now, all she’s thinking about is Pyeongchang. And if anyone other than Geisenberger wins gold, it’ll be an upset.
“I have not said that I will stop after the Olympics, and I have not said I will continue for sure,” Geisenberger said. “If my body is still OK and if I’m still hungry for success, I will continue. If not, I will stop.”
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