LAKE PLACID, N.Y. — Matt Mortensen and Jayson Terdiman have heard all the jokes.
They are grown men wearing matching skintight racing suits who lay flat on their backs while sharing a little sled for 80 mph trips down ice-covered mountainside chutes for a living. They don’t get rich by doing this, the risk rarely matches the reward and the visual of one man atop of another has long been fodder for lowbrow attempts at humor.
At the Pyeongchang Games next month, Mortensen and Terdiman will aim for the last laugh.
They are America’s best hope in doubles luge, an event that seems to get noticed only when the Olympics roll around. Mortensen and Terdiman will spend about two minutes on the track during the competition, two minutes that will serve as the culmination of a four-year preparation process that was often not easy.
“I try to be comedic with it,” Terdiman said. “If I can’t laugh at it, who can, right? I tell people I lay on my back for a living. It’s one of the most fun things I can do.”
For the record, doubles competitors are not exactly atop one another — there is a seat for the top driver, while the back driver is underneath. The top driver, the one who can actually see, does most of the steering but both sliders are involved. If Mortensen, the top driver, turns his head one way, Terdiman will try to shift his weight accordingly to help the sled get through a turn as quickly and smoothly as possible.
It’s an extremely technical sport, and lugers know that regular people will never fully understand much more than the visual aspect.
And yes, even Mortensen and Terdiman will acknowledge it looks odd.
“We’ve kind of learned to just roll with that and you just give it back,” Mortensen said. “You’re like, ‘What? What’s so weird about two guys in spandex just laying with each other on sled? Like, it’s totally normal to me.’ So I think it’s about how you handle those questions when you get them.”
USA Luge has five Olympic medals in its history, and four of them have come in doubles. The U.S. took silver and bronze in doubles at both the 1998 Nagano Games and the 2002 Salt Lake City Games.
Mortensen and Terdiman will likely have two chances to add their name to those American luge medalist lists.
They will be in the doubles event Feb. 14, and it’s reasonable to think they will also make the team relay along with one men’s and one women’s singles slider on Feb. 15. They helped the U.S. win a silver medal on the World Cup circuit earlier this season in a relay, and entered this weekend ranked sixth in the overall World Cup doubles standings.
Like everyone else, they started in luge as singles competitors. Mortensen was highly accomplished in the junior ranks in both singles and doubles, and Terdiman didn’t need long to learn that he was best suited as a doubles slider. They both went to the Sochi Olympics four years ago with other teammates, then got together after those games and clicked almost immediately.
Their first time down the track together, the run was almost flawless. Both were stunned. They were a natural fit, quickly developing the chemistry both on and off the ice that some of their competitors from other nations have spent more than a decade building.
“We knew right away that we were on to something,” Terdiman said.
German sleds will be favored to win gold, silver and probably bronze in the doubles event. The Americans, however, are conceding nothing — but they also don’t plan to start really thinking about Korea until they actually get to Korea.
“Matt and I have pretty good, solid heads on our shoulders,” Terdiman said. “We’re going to need to perform at our best. We’ve had a solid plan and we’re trying to follow through on that plan every day. We keep ourselves level-headed.”
The results have gotten better each year, they’re often in contention for medals on the World Cup tour, and see no reason why that can’t happen in Pyeongchang. This entire season has been about trying to find the right setup for the utmost speed on that day, tinkering with various details of the sled to figure out what suits them best.
Mortensen gets on the sled first, then Terdiman slides into his spot. From there the routine is almost always the same: Visors get snapped into place on their helmets, Terdiman taps his fingertips on the ice and makes a clicking sound — lugers all have tiny metal studs taped to their fingertips to help them dig into the ramp at the start — and both exhale audibly.
“Ready?” Terdiman yells.
“Let’s do it, brother,” Mortensen replies.
With that, they rock back and forth a couple times, readying their bodies to work like coils at the start as they begin to generate the speed needed to get down the track as quickly as possible. Once the sled is moving, both need to stay as flat as they can for the duration of the trip so they can be as aerodynamic as possible.
“This is what we’ve worked for,” Mortensen said.
He and Terdiman both know: A medal would be no laughing matter.
More AP Olympic coverage: https://wintergames.ap.org