It's early, but USA Luge off to fast World Cup start

The leader of the luge World Cup standings wears a special bib over his or her sliding suit on race day, a perk that American racer Summer Britcher figured would come her way at some point in the next few years.

Instead, it'll happen this weekend.

The dominant team on the World Cup luge circuit so far this season doesn't hail from Germany, Italy or Austria. It's been the Americans, who have turned some early home-ice advantage into a medal haul that suggests they're closing the gap on the sport's traditional powerhouses as preparations start to ramp up for the 2018 Olympics in South Korea.

''It is a little surreal,'' said men's slider Chris Mazdzer, who never had a World Cup singles win in his career before this season and has prevailed in the last two races at Lake Placid, New York and Park City, Utah.

It's more than a little surreal.

The Americans have claimed gold medals in five of eight singles events on the circuit already this season - matching their number of World Cup singles wins from the last two decades combined. Add a relay gold to this season's total and that's six victories for USA Luge, more than any other nation.

Racing at home in Lake Placid and Park City clearly helped, but home-ice events in the past didn't lead to anything even close to this. Two U.S. men and two U.S. women are ahead of any German slider in the World Cup points standings; until now, that would have classified as possibly the most unfathomable luge scenario.

''Now that we're where we are, I feel like we've done everything we can to put ourselves in a great spot to keep building,'' said 2009 world champion and 2014 Olympic bronze medalist Erin Hamlin, who ceded the World Cup leader's bib to Britcher after last weekend. ''Clearly, what we've been bringing to the table is what we need to be doing. And right now, our team is in a really good place to capitalize on that.''

Mazdzer has two men's wins on tour this season and currently sits No. 2 in the men's rankings, two spots ahead of fellow American Tucker West - a former World Cup race winner. Britcher has two women's wins this season, Hamlin has another, and they teamed with Emily Sweeney for a gold-silver-bronze sweep this month in Lake Placid, a feat they nearly repeated in Park City last weekend.

So when this weekend's World Cup in Calgary, Alberta, starts on Friday, the Americans will be the ones to catch.

''I'm pretty surprised, but I think going into this season we all knew we had the potential to get on the podium,'' said Britcher, the World Cup leader for the first time. ''But I definitely am surprised to have it happen two weeks in a row and pretty excited going forward.''

The challenge becomes heading to foreign soil and staying in the medal mix.

After returning home from Calgary for the holiday break, the rest of the World Cup schedule features five European stops - three in Germany, one in Russia and another in Latvia.

''It's really exciting to be in this position right now,'' Britcher said. ''I didn't expect this to happen for several, several more years. I'm just trying to enjoy it.''

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