For the sliders in Pyeongchang, they have to work 9 to thrive

AP Photo/Wong Maye-E

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea -- It was a particularly unhappy coincidence.

Just as I was asking Erin Hamlin, the U.S. flag-bearer at these Winter Games and four-time Olympic luger, about how she was handling the sliding track's notoriously complicated Turn 9, Austrian luger Birgit Platzer went pinballing in that very turn. Platzer bounced off two walls, caught air and came completely off her sled, skidding along the ice on her back for some distance.

Everyone at the Alpensia Sliding Centre sucked in air at once, including Hamlin, who stopped the interview and turned around to face the television to check on Platzer's condition.

"Oh no," Hamlin said.

In September in Park City, Utah, Hamlin was the first to mention the difficulties of Turn 9 here, but it quickly became a theme. The turn itself is a highly technical, unorthodox sector of the Alpensia track where a turn emerges not into a straightaway or another turn, as is typical, but into a serpentine straight, known as a chicane. 

The Alpensia's chicane isn't the only one in the world. The Whistler track in British Columbia features one, as does the track in Lake Placid, New York, where many U.S. sliders train. What's particular about the Alpensia chicane is that it actually follows in the same direction as the turn, not against it, which creates a sideways pressure on the sled.

The result, according to U.S. luger Tucker West, is that sliders come out of the curve "pointing straight at a wall."

Hamlin said in September that the number of times she had gotten that turn just right "were few and far in between." And after her second official run Monday night (she eventually finished the event in sixth place), she turned back from watching Platzer's crash and confessed she still hadn't totally figured it out.

"It's still very difficult, as you just witnessed. It's given me trouble all week," Hamlin said, adding that she was taking a fairly improvisational approach to the curve. "I just want to get out of it, so however that happens I'm great with."

American luger Taylor Morris, who placed 18th in the men's singles competition, said the U.S. team had developed two basic approaches to the curve during its training runs in the days before the competition.

"There's the idea that when you come off of 8 and into 9, you can be set up on the right-hand side and hit the corner pretty early, and that kind of knocks you flat through the middle," Morris said in describing the first option. The second is riskier: "You set up on the left and get this massive height and kind of shoot through that gap," he said. "Instead of steering around it, you make it as straight of a line as possible."

In a sport in which races are decided by hundredths of a second, trying the second approach is almost irresistible.

"If you have some faith in yourself and a little trust in your equipment, you can make that second line work," Morris said, adding that the Alpensia chicane slightly mimics that of the Lake Placid track.

Thus far at these games, Turn 9 has proved decisive. American luger Chris Mazdzer, the silver medalist in men's singles event, said after his final run that his No. 1 goal had been to nail Turn 9 every time he went down the track.

"I knew if I was off a little bit, I'd come out completely sideways and out of control," Mazdzer said.

German luging legend Felix Loch was denied his chance at a record-tying three-peat of gold in men's singles because he got the ninth turn wrong on his final run.

"I did a mistake out of Corner 9, and that is one part of the track you are not allowed to do a mistake," Loch explained.

The weather has played a role in making the Turn 9 difficult, as well. Cold temperatures, worsened by high winds, have made the ice especially hard -- making driving the sled out of the turn more trying because of increased speeds. Those who navigate the turn have been setting and resetting track records at Alpensia; those who haven't either lose critical time or to lose their sleds -- like Emily Sweeney of the U.S., who suffered a terrifying wreck coming out of the ninth curve on her final run yesterday.

American luger Summer Britcher, who set the track record in women's singles with a time of 46.132 seconds on her second run (she eventually finished 19th) tried to describe the effect Turn 9 is having on the sliders.

"A lot of people are having trouble there because we've had so much trouble in the past. You get this negative feeling in your head," Britcher explained. "You almost get this PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] of the curve."

And with doubles event and the team relay remaining in luge, there's surely more drama to come.