SARANAC LAKE — The average blink of a human eye lasts about three-tenths of a second, and a bolt of lighting can strike in one one-hundredth of a second.
The outcome of a luge race can be decided by one one-thousandth of a second.
“The sport of luge is all about perfection,” Chris Mazdzer said.
The pursuit of that perfection has led the Saranac Lake native around the world and next month will take him to his second Olympics.
Lately, Mazdzer has been closer than ever to perfection. He’s wrapping up the best World Cup season of his career and eyeing a Top 10 finish at the Sochi Olympics.
LUGING SINCE AGE 8
The 25-year-old began the sport at age 8, attended the National Sports Academy in Lake Placid and has been a member of the U.S. National Team since 2009.
Mazdzer clinched his spot on the Olympic team with a fourth-place finish at a World Cup race in November and said that “was a huge burden lifted off my shoulders.”
On Dec. 6, he became the first American male since 2007 to make a World Cup podium when he placed second in Whistler, British Columbia, and the next week he repeated the silver-medal feat in Park City, Utah.
Did those career-best performances buoy his outlook for Sochi?
“Yes and no,” Mazdzer said. “It’s nice knowing I can be competitive, but I know for a fact that the Germans, they hold back in races that don’t matter. For the Olympics, they have very fast equipment and are extremely difficult to compete with.
“The Russians are also medal contenders because they’ve been pouring so much into the track and their equipment.”
‘WE WERE CAVEMEN’
Luge is the only sliding sport timed to the thousandth of a second. In races that require such precision, equipment can be everything.
A race “is about a mile long. If you’re offline by a millimeter, you feel the pressure,” Mazdzer said. “Certain runs, you think, ‘Wow, that was pretty damn good.’ But it wasn’t a perfect run by a long shot.
“Some runs, you come down, you know you just nailed everything. But if your equipment isn’t set up right, that doesn’t mean you go fast.”
Heading into the last race of the season today in Latvia, Mazdzer was sixth in the World Cup standings. He said his rise is largely due to research and development.
“I can’t say that I’ve just been doing it myself,” he said. “There are a lot of people putting in so much time in the background that no one ever sees. So much work, precision.”
Some of that background work has happened at Clarkson, where USA Luge has partnered with the Department of Mechanical and Aeronautical Engineering to build a more comfortable and more aerodynamic pod. That’s the part of the sled that lugers lie in, and Mazdzer said the engineers have been able to create a digital design and then produce an exact foam replica to see if the athletes like it.
“Everything in the past was done by hand,” Mazdzer said. “It was kind of like we were cavemen in a modern age compared to other countries. The Germans have dominated. The Italians and Austrians are very good.
“We’ve been able to catch up to some other countries. It’s nice that a local university has such great resources so we don’t have to go far.”
Along with equipment, experience can have a big impact in luge. Mazdzer said it can take 10 years for an athlete to fully develop the skills needed for strong runs. He added that lugers often don’t start to peak until their mid-20s, and the most successful sliders are typically in their 30s.
“Small mistakes cost a lot of time. That’s what people don’t see,” he said. “It looks easy going down the track, but that’s because we’ve been doing it our entire lives.”
No American luger has ever won an Olympic medal in men’s singles, and Mazdzer said the odds will still be against him and his teammates in Sochi. He finished 13th in the 2010 Olympics, and since then his goal has been to surpass that in 2014. He said he won’t really be happy unless he places in the top 10.
“I still am the underdog, even though I have had success,” Mazdzer said. “Getting a medal will be extremely difficult.
“But for the first time in my life, I can say it’s not out of the question. But it’s highly unlikely. With some of the teams coming in, it’s going to be a struggle.”
Fortunately, the underdog position is exactly where Mazdzer likes to be. The challenge appeals to him.
“I guess the reason I like putting myself in that mind-set is it forces you to kind of go above your comfort zone,” he said. “You realize you have a shot at doing well; you might as well go for it.”
Having already competed in the Olympics should help an athlete know what to expect, but the luge competition at the Vancouver Games was unparalleled — the day before racing started, an athlete was killed in a crash during a training run.
“I guess in my life I don’t think there will be another experience like Vancouver, at least not in sports. That was a pretty crazy couple days,” Mazdzer said. “So I think I’m very well prepared for anything in Sochi.”
Mazdzer was lucky enough to be one of three men chosen to test the Sochi track about three years ago. While the host country’s athletes can train on the Olympic track, international lugers get few opportunities, so the test athletes are basically more familiar with it than everyone except the Russians.
Mazdzer called the track “forgiving” and said sliders can generate a lot of speed if they navigate the corners just right.
“l think I can do that pretty well, but it comes down to being perfect,” he said.
Mazdzer said he tries not to overdo his preparation. He admitted that with all the fine-tuning involved in the search for that elusive perfect run, “you can drive yourself crazy.”
But the quest for perfection is also the allure.
“I do enjoy that,” he said. “I find it fascinating.”
Email Courtney Lewis:firstname.lastname@example.orgTwitter: @sportsCourt.