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2018 Winter Olympics

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They grew up an ocean, and a few months, apart. They spoke different languages, lived in families of different sizes, and competed at high levels in sports from different seasons.

And yet Huntington Station’s Sgt. Matt Mortensen, a Winter Olympic soldier-athlete with Team USA who competes in the luge, and Alex Duma, a sports chiropractor in New York, have been dating for close to two years.

The world of sports provides common ground for these two 32-year-olds. Duma grew up to become a Romanian women’s national swimming champion and an All-American swimmer.

Mortensen, despite living his early years on the relatively flat terrain of Long Island, dedicated his considerable athletic energy to a sport his father Jerry introduced him to when the company where he worked, Verizon, was sponsoring a luge event.

Mortensen and Duma met when she was on volunteering at Lake Placid Olympic Training Center.

He tried to ask her out for a drink and she turned him down because she didn’t want to consider dating someone she might treat as a patient.

Several months later, however, she relented when she knew he wouldn’t consult her professionally.

Once they started dating in earnest, her experience as an athlete helped prepare her for the travels, the dedication to training — and the competition.

“I understand him really well,” she said. “I’ve been an athlete myself and I do travel with athletes. I understand his lifestyle.”

That lifestyle brings challenges that would be difficult for people who weren’t born some 5,000 miles apart. Indeed, as a member of the Army World Class Athlete Program, Mortensen ventures around the globe routinely, competing in World Cup competitions.

Since he was 12, Mortensen learned most of his middle school and high school lessons from work sent from St. Dominic’s in Oyster Bay. He often missed celebrating his December birthday with his family because it fell during the winter luge season.

The time on the road, however, helped him grow up more rapidly and, as it turned out, gave him the opportunity to learn other cultures earlier than many of his American contemporaries.

The months he spent in Europe “helped bridge the cultural gap,” Duma said. It helped him “understand my European culture.”

At the same time, Duma came to the United States when she was 19, so she feels that “a lot of what I am is due to the American culture.”

Duma admires Mortensen’s relentless efforts to improve and compete. She has watched how he continues to work out after the season ends, even when the workouts are not required.

“He’ll go above and beyond the extra step,” she said.

As for their families, Duma grew up as an only child. On another continent, Mortensen grew up with four brothers and two sisters, in a family of nine.

“They are an amazing big family,” Duma said. “I feel so blessed to have been invited to family events,” which include Christmas and Easter.

Duma appreciates the noise, the dogs, little kids and the constant commotion, which is a marked contrast from her life in a small family, where it was “too quiet.”

Borrowing an oft-quoted line from the movie “Jerry Maguire,” Mortensen said Duma “really completes me.”

Mortensen suggested that Duma stay behind and continue to work while he was in PyeongChang. In South Korea, he finished fourth in the luge team relay, a tenth of a second behind the Austrian team for bronze. He wanted her to save up her vacation time so the athletic couple could travel on a planned trip to Hawaii. During the games, the two of them speak by FaceTime and Whatsapp.

Ultimately, what makes the relationship work, Duma said, is that her Olympic boyfriend is “such a good communicator. He’s amazing at that.”

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Huntington Station luge competitor Matt Mortinson, on top, competes with teammate Jayson Terdiman in the Winterberg, Germany November 2017. Photo from USA Luge

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.

Huntington Station luge competitor Matt Mortinson, on right, with teammate Jayson Terdiman. Photo from USA Luge

“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.”

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He was so close and then, poof, everything he’d worked for and imagined for 13 years disappeared in an instant.

John Daly, a Smithtown native who hates the cold, was competing in his second winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, and was in fourth place, in the hunt for a medal after three of the four legs of his skeleton race.

In skeleton, athletes sprint at top speed hunched over with their hands on the sleds for five seconds, then dive headfirst on the sleds, navigating around the curved icy track by shifting their weight while traveling at speeds of more than 80 miles per hour.

And then, in the fourth race, at the top, where he needed to generate the kind of speed that would allow him to race against his rivals and the clock, Daly’s sled popped out of the grooves in the ice, slowing him down and sending him back to 15th place.

After such a crushing defeat, Daly decided to move on with his life, retiring from a sport where he’d won numerous other medals and where he was one of the country’s best sliders.

For two years, he stayed retired, taking a job in Virginia at medical technology company Smith & Nephew.

Then, a funny thing happened in retirement. Daly missed the sport. He didn’t have the same passion for other parts of his life, the bitter cold from mountains around the world notwithstanding, that he felt when he was racing.

He spoke to numerous people about what he might do.

People his age, he’s 32, could understand the hesitation about throwing himself back into a sport that required physical and mental commitment. To get back into prime condition, Daly would need to make nine hour drives from Virginia, where he was living, up to Lake Placid, a familiar training ground and site of the 1980 Miracle on Ice.

People older than he is, however, couldn’t understand the agony of the decision.

“Why wouldn’t you go back?” they asked. When you’re older, they argued, “Do you want to look back and say, ‘I might have gotten a little further ahead at work,’ or do you want to go back for one more Olympic games?”

Unlike other competitions, the Winter Olympics only occur once every four years. And, unlike the World Cup competitions, a global TV audience seems to pause to watch the games.

The Olympics can make the improbable possible, including the unexpected warming of tensions between North and South Korea, who are marching together in the opening ceremony and sending a combined women’s ice hockey team to the games.

As we age, we don’t always spring out of bed the same way and we may lose a step or two in our reaction time. We gain, however, the benefit of each year of life experiences, observing how we, and the world around us, change.

Daly decided to return to the sport, where he has made his third Olympic team. The poet Horace, who published the immortal Latin phrase “carpe diem,” meaning “seize the day,” would be proud.

No one knows how Daly will do in a few weeks. Could he medal? His coach Tuffy Latour thinks so.

Latour said that Daly “never really lost it.”

Sometimes, Latour said, the time away helps athletes better prepare for the next Olympics, allowing them to gain a fresh perspective.

Coming back, however, may prove equally important for Daly, who is hoping to rewrite the final chapter of a sliding odyssey. Many years from now, he hopes he may one day offer the same kind of support to his kids that he received from his parents James and Bennarda, whom he jokingly called “sliding enablers.”

Regardless of the outcome, that older version of himself may thank him for giving it one more try.