PARK CITY — Preston Griffall couldn’t stop smiling. Kate Hansen couldn’t stop the tears.
Two local athletes who narrowly missed the 2010 Olympics earned nominations to compete with the 2014 U.S. luge team with their performances in Friday’s Viessmann Luge World Cup at the Utah Olympic Park.
Griffall, an Olympus High graduate, qualified with partner Matthew Mortensen in doubles after finishing in ninth place with a two-run combined time of 1:28.080. Germany’s Tobias Wendl and Tobias Arit won the race with a time of 1:27.326.
“Obviously, we’re ecstatic,” Griffall said. “This is what we’ve been working for, not just for the past few months, but for the past seven or eight years. This is huge for us. It’s obviously a big relief to know that we’ve made the team.”
While Griffall and Mortensen would have preferred to lock up their spot, which is determined by World Cup finishes, earlier this season, qualifying on the track where Griffall first started sliding was special.
“This is the first track I ever slid on, and for the first couple years of my career as a luge athlete, this is the only place that I slid,” he said. “So it’s awesome. Matt and I didn’t want it to come down to this race, but if there is any place we were going to do it, it was here. This is a familiar place and maybe we had a little bit of a home-track advantage.”
In fact, the duo has trained and participated in seeding races in Park City.
“We’ve been racing well here,” he said. “So we knew we were capable.”
While Griffall competed in the 2006 Winter Olympics with another partner, he and Mortensen lost a race-off with teammates for that final spot.
“It was really heartbreaking for Matt and I to narrowly miss,” Griffall said. After missing out on the 2010 Games, he returned to Utah and tried to think about anything but luge.
“I was a bit depressed,” he said. “I had decided I was going to purely focus on making those Olympics, so I wasn’t doing anything. I was completely focused on sliding.”
He couldn’t even bring himself to watch the Olympic Games, opting instead to watch the results online.
“I didn’t want to watch and see how much fun they were having,” he joked. A couple of months later, the two talked about whether or not they could devote another four years to chasing their Olympic dream.
“We’re both fighters, and we weren’t going to give up that easy. It motivated us to come back and fight even harder for a spot on this team.”
Now that they’ve earned their sport, Griffall said they’re not going to hold anything back.
“This I the beginning of the rest of the season,” he said. “The Olympics are coming up and that’s the big show. I would like to test out different equipment and really let it rip in every World Cup, find speed and see what will work best, get dialed in for Sochi.”
Hansen, a BYU student from California, also missed out on the 2010 games when she lost a race-off the same weekend as Griffall.
“It’s not real,” she said, leaning on her parents and wiping away tears after qualifying Friday. “This isn’t real. It feels great. It’s not real. I’m just emotional. I’m stoked. It hasn’t set in. I need to think about this. This has been a long time coming. It’s everything I’ve worked for and more.”
Hansen actually fulfilled the selection criteria last weekend, but a top-five finish from a teammate would have jeopardized her spot. That was never a concern as Hansen’s first run was the second-fastest of the round.
“I thought I was going to win,” Hansen said of her thoughts between runs. “I’ll be honest. I thought I was going to pull it out, and I was way stoked for my second run. But I am just grateful that I had a clean run and I’m in one piece.”
Hansen broke her foot on the Utah Olympic Park’s track on the first run of team seeding races in October. But she said she had no trepidation about competing on the same track Friday.
“I grew up here,” she said of Park City. “My heart and soul is here. I would say it was tough coming back after the broken foot, but I was just glad to be back in America, back with the people I love.” Her fourth-place finish is her career best.
“I didn’t know I had it in me, but I’m just stoked,” she said. “This is where I started, and it’s a great conclusion to this whole process.”
Hansen’s combined time was 1:27.929, while Germany’s Natalie Geisenberger was the fastest slider in both heats with a combined time of 1:27.628.
In addition to the locally connected athletes qualifying, four other racers earned nominations to the Olympic team. Summer Britcher, who finished ninth, joins Erin Hamlin, who qualified earlier this season, and Hansen. In the doubles, Christian Niccum and partner Jayson Terdiman qualified when they defeated Jake Hyrns and Andrew Sherk in doubles.
Julia Clukey, a 2010 Olympian, finished sixth in Friday’s race, but she needed a top-five finish to beat Britcher for the third and final spot on the team.
The World Cup continues Saturday with men’s races at 11:15 a.m. and team relay races at 3 p.m. Hansen also qualified for a spot on the relay team with the fastest individual run time Friday.
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