By Daniel Dunaief
Sixth place after the first run wasn’t going to cut it. Huntington Station’s Matthew Mortensen and his partner Jayson Terdiman had flown all the way to Pyeongchang, South Korea to bring home Olympic hardware.
Mortensen, who is in the World Class Athlete Program for the United States military, has spent years preparing for this opportunity.
The tandem was ranked fifth after the World Cup season, which brings the top athletes in the sport together for competitions around the world. They knew they had the talent to compete on the world’s biggest stage, and they had an enormous time gap, at least in the high-speed world of luge, to make up to put themselves in position for a medal.
Mortensen asked Terdiman, “Hey, do you want to go for it?” Without hesitation, his teammate agreed.
Before their next run, Mortensen sacrificed control for speed, reducing the margin for error on the final race for a medal.
“I’d rather be on my face than not try to get a medal at the Olympics,” Mortensen said.
“I’d rather be on my face than not try to get a medal at the Olympics.”
— Matt Mortensen
The second ride was better than the first, until they reached turn 13. Tapping the wall was enough to set them back. They finished that race in 13th and ended the doubles competition in 10th.
Changing the sled was “risky, but they were there to compete for a medal and not just compete,” Bill Tavares, the head coach of USA Luge, said in an email.
The Olympics were not over for the luge team, however, as they had one more competition a few days later, when they joined Chris Mazdzer, who had won a silver medal in the singles competition and Summer Britcher, a singles rider for the women, in the relay.
Team USA had every reason to be optimistic, as it had finished second in a similar relay in a World Cup competition in Germany last year.
When all the teams finished, the Americans came in fourth, a mere one tenth of a second behind the Austria team, which claimed the bronze.
“Fourth place was frustrating,” Mortensen said. The team had “an opportunity to get a medal, and didn’t.”
Tavares explained the fourth-place finish was “hard for all us to take.” The team knew it not only had a chance to win a medal, but win a gold one.
Fourth place became an unfortunate pattern for the Americans in South Korea, as Team USA didn’t make it to the medal stands often as the collection of determined athletes had expected in the first week of competition.
Apart from his events, however, Mortensen has ridden some of the same emotions as his countrymen back home.
He watched with concern as teammate Emily Sweeney crashed.
“For us, it was a major relief when we saw her stand up and move around,” Mortensen said.
Mortensen was also inspired by snowboarder Shaun White, who returned from an Olympic misfire at Sochi to come through with a gold medal on his final run in the half pipe competition. White was moved to tears after collecting his third gold medal.
“That type of emotion and energy embodies the Olympic spirit,” Mortensen said.
The Huntington Station athlete was also impressed by the gold medal performances of 17-year old Chloe Kim, who won her half pipe competition, and Jamie Anderson, who claimed gold in women’s slopestyle snowboarding.
This is 32-year old Mortensen’s second Olympic appearence. He came in 14th at Sochi with a different partner, Preston Griffall.
Mortensen said the overall experience is the same, with considerable positive energy at both locations.
Mortensen’s parents Jerry and Mary flew across the world to support their son and the team.
Mortensen’s coach was pleased with his effort.
“He came to compete and left nothing out there,” Tavares said.
Mortensen also has dedicated fans back home.
“We are so very proud of [Mortensen] for his incredible passion, talent and perseverance competing for many years on the world’s stage, including the Olympic games,” said Eileen Knauer, a senior vice president and chief operating officer at Huntington YMCA. Knauer has worked with Mortensen’s mother Mary at the YMCA for more than a quarter of a century.
Mortensen has six brothers and sisters.
“We are so very proud of [Mortensen] for his incredible passion, talent and perseverance competing for many years on the world’s stage, including the Olympic games.”
— Eileen Knauer
“The Mortensen family is the epitome of what the YMCA represents; youth development, healthy living and social responsibility,” Knauer said.
In the longer term, Mortensen isn’t sure what will come next in his life. His time in the world class athlete’s program ends in June and he has to decide whether to continue.
In the meantime, he and his girlfriend of the last two years, Alex Duma, who is a chiropractor in New York City, plan to vacation to Hawaii in March.
Duma, who is a former Romanian National Champion and All-American swimmer, relates to the life of a driven athlete.
“I understand him really well,” Duma said. “I understand his lifestyle, which is why this works, because I’m 100 percent on board.”
Duma said she also knows the frustration her boyfriend felt after all the years of training to compete in the Olympics.
She tries to be “as encouraging and supportive” as she can, she said. She believes time can help provide some perspective.
While the 2018 results didn’t meet Mortensen’s expectations, “it doesn’t change who he is or his character,” Duma added.
As a member of the 1156 Engineer Company in Kingston, New York, Mortensen is a “folk hero” to the members of his unit, said Lieutenant William Hayes, who is his commanding officer. “He’s one of our own,” he said. “It’s always exciting to hear his stories.”