Less than a month ago, luger Chris Mazdzer took to Facebook to share his mounting frustration over a persistent rut he had fallen into — and from which it seemed he may never escape.
“What kills me on the inside is not the fact I made a few small mistakes,” he wrote, “what kills me and has been driving me wild for over a year now is the fact that no matter what I do my top speed and ability to be with the top guys in the world has disappeared, and I don’t know why.”
That was on Jan. 21. Then on Sunday — exactly three weeks later and in his third Olympic appearance — Mazdzer won a silver medal in men’s singles luge at the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea, the first American to ever make the podium in that event.
“It’s 16 years in the making,” he told reporters after his victory, which he traces back to watching the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan.
“What you dream about as a young child and 20 years later you’re finally on the podium — I don’t know how to describe it,” he said. “All I know is that I have my friends and family here celebrating with me and this is validation for everything I’ve done. All the sacrifices, it’s worth it.”
The U.S. now stands at four total medals, thanks to Mazdzer, 29, as well as gold-medalists and snowboarders Jamie Anderson and Red Gerard and the bronze-medaling figure skating team.
On Instagram, alongside a celebratory photo of himself, Mazdzer called it a “hell of a ride” as he thanked his teammates, coaches and his family.
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“I think this gives luge in the United States a huge boost,” he said at a news conference after finishing the competition, referring more broadly to a sport in which America has been historically weak. “We have a strong team coming up. I can see some good things in the future for USA luge.”
Under the rules of Olympic luge — in which competitors slide feet-first and face-up on a sled down a track, navigating at high speeds around curves with the subtlest physical motions — the top three finishers are selected based on their cumulative time over four runs.
In below-freezing Pyeongchang, the weather worked to Mazdzer’s advantage.
“The really cold conditions here, with luge that’s the great equalizer,” he said, according to the Denver Post.
“When the ice is that hard, when it’s basically marble, that’s when it comes down to experience,” he said. “I really was out of control all four runs, but I held on … I look back at all those below-zero mornings , where I did not want to train at 8 in the morning, and that was a big part of it.”
Speaking to PEOPLE last fall, Mazdzer explained how luge, separate from other sliding sports, hinged on experience. And coming into these Games, he had more than two decades on the track.
“I’m going to be the best that I can possibly be and I hope it’s a medal,” he said then. “I don’t want to say the word ‘hope,’ I actually think it’s a terrible word to say. I’m very confident in my ability, I’ve put all the time in, and I’m going to execute.”
During his competition, Mazdzer was reportedly joined by his girlfriend and his sisters, who stripped down to their patriotically colored sports bras and leggings.
Fans were also seen waving giant cut-outs of his (notably handsome) face — a mug that did not go unnoticed by Saturday Night Live‘s Leslie Jones, providing color commentary on social media while watching on TV.
As the Post‘s Kiszla wrote on Sunday night: “Mazdzer went from just another face in the crowd to a sex symbol at 80 mph.”
“Damn he is fine. Mmm, Chris, please God, Chris, oh God I’m so scared for you Chris,” Jones said in one video she posted on Twitter. (Don’t worry, Mazdzer knows about his celebrity fan.)
In another post as she watched him race, Jones said, “Yes, baby. Create history, Chris. On that little skateboard with — Lord have mercy Jesus, that’s got to be the most dangerous thing in the world.”
The 2018 Winter Olympics are airing live on NBC. To learn more, visit teamusa.org.