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Matthew Mortensen

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

After athletes from around the world raced across and flew over ice and snow in Beijing, much of it manufactured, some Olympians are likely to need to adjust to a return to their everyday life.

India Pagan, right, at last year’s summer Olympics opening ceremony. Photo Pagan

Two-time Olympian Matthew Mortensen, who competed in Sochi, Russia, in 2014 and in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in 2018 in the luge, suggested that the competitors coming back needed to give themselves time to settle back into their routines.

While he cautioned that he couldn’t speak for all athletes, he described how “you are going so hard for so long during any season. One capped by the Olympic Games brings even more adrenaline and mental stress. Once it was over for me, I just felt emotionally and mentally drained.”

Mortensen, who grew up in Huntington Station and now lives in Connecticut, spent March and April of each Olympic year focusing on his physical and mental recovery.

As with each Olympics, the 2022 Games in Beijing had its own storylines and challenges, as American athletes traveled across the world without support networks who couldn’t attend because of strict COVID rules.

“With COVID restrictions and protocols, lack of spectators, a diplomatic ban, differences in how long athletes could stay at the games after their [events] had finished, etc., I couldn’t help but feel like the athletes at this Olympics were not getting the ‘full experience,’” Mortensen explained in an email. “That being said, I’m sure it was still wonderful for them.”

Indeed, Stony Brook University graduate student India Pagan, who is a stand-out starting basketball player and is earning her master’s degree, attended her first games in Tokyo as a representative of the first Puerto Rican basketball team to compete in the Olympics last summer.

“It crossed my mind, what would these [games] be like if we didn’t have all these COVID restrictions, how much more fun it would have been,” she said.

Still, Pagan, who had routine COVID and temperature tests and had to show her badge regularly, called the experience a “blast.”

While Pagan said she, too, was “sad” when the Olympics were over, she said she was “thankful” she got to participate and appreciated the reception she received when she returned, which included a parade in her native New London, Connecticut.

“I’m an Olympian now,” she said. “It’s a different life. People see the tattoo on my leg, and they say, ‘Can I take a picture with you?’”

Russian skater

Mortensen and Pagan said they both were well aware of some of the storylines that dominated the Beijing games.

One of the biggest narratives involved 15-year-old Russian skating sensation Kamila Valieva. After the team event, in which the Russian Olympic Committee won a gold medal while the United States earned a silver, Valieva tested positive for a banned substance.

The International Olympic Committee allowed her to compete in the individual skating event, where she was first after the short program, but fell in the long program and finished in fourth, behind two of her teammates.

Luge competitor Matthew Mortensen, on right in photo, with teammate Jayson Terdiman in 2018. Left photo from USA Luge

Like many other athletes and commentators, Mortensen believed Valieva shouldn’t have been competing after her positive test.

“There has to be a hard line on doping, especially when it comes to the Olympic Games,” Mortensen wrote. “The adults around her let her down and the Court of Arbitration for Sport made the wrong decision.”

He said he couldn’t imagine competing knowing that her competitors felt like she was a cheater. He expected that the mental trauma she experienced would be “long lasting.”

Pagan said Team USA officials warn athletes to be careful about anything they take that might lead to a positive drug test.

“You never know what type of substances could be illegal,” Pagan said. “You have to be very careful.”

Love for the Games

Mortensen said he watched the Games every day, getting up early to support his former teammates live.

“I still love the Olympics and everything that the Games represent,” he wrote in an email. He finds them “fascinating” and enjoys cheering on Team USA.

In addition to lasting memories, Mortensen and Pagan both appreciate the camaraderie and friendships that came from participating in a marquee athletic event on the world stage.

“In our sport, we find ourselves competing against most of the same athletes for our entire career,” Mortensen wrote. “We travel together, hang out together, play sports together and just spend a lot of time around each other in general over the years,” which helps build enduring friendships.

Just hours after the competition, Pagan said she and other Olympians interacted in the game room.

“We do everything we can for our country” and then they connect with other people who are doing the same, she said.

Pagan said she has stayed in touch with several members of the South African track team and with a wrestler from Australia.

One of her new friends asked her if she thought she’d be able to see each other in person again.

“Maybe life will bring us back together,” Pagan said. “It’s cool that we’re still friends.”

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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.”