Nassau County’s South Shore doesn’t immediately spring to mind as a hot bed mountain sports such as skiing and luge. It is, nonetheless, the home of one of Team USA’s rising stars, Sam Day, who lives with his parents on the border of Wantagh and Seaford.
Day, 17, a luger, captured his first World Cup medal of the 2019-20 season earlier this month, after moving up to the Youth A doubles team with partner and best friend Sam Eckert, of upstate Wilmington. Their second-place finish in Winterberg, Germany, just .09 seconds behind a duo from Poland, despite a foot injury sustained in cup competition in St. Moritz, Switzerland, in January, helped cement Day’s place as one of the U.S. team’s best hopes for both World Cup and Olympic competition in the coming years.
“We only had one run in Winterberg, because it was pouring rain the whole time we were there,” Day said of a day on which the U.S. team also took silver in the women’s doubles and men’s singles.
Day and Eckert joined forces at the beginning of the World Cup season, which runs from October through February, after Day’s previous doubles partner, Michael O’Gara, of LaCrescenta, Calif., aged out of the junior division when he turned 18. The Day-O’Gara duo took gold at last year’s U.S. national championships at Park City, Utah.
Day and Eckert have known each other for several years, but never raced together until this season. They will both age out of the junior division this year, but will not continue racing as a team as they move up to the 18-to-20 age group. Day has always competed as the top man on a two-man sled, and Eckert is set to become the top man on a new team.
It would be inaccurate to assume the top position is the more important of the two, Day explained. “The bottom does a lot to help steer and guide during a slide,” as luge runs are known, he said. “He can use his shoulders to help keep the line” as the sled hurtles down the mountain at speeds of up to 85 mph, and the bottom man is critical to maintaining the sled’s balance, he said.
Day’s injury came during a training run on Team USA’s first day in St. Moritz. “My foot got caught behind the sled while I was steering,” he said. “I looked down, and blood had come all the way through my boot and left a long line on the ice. I wanted to keep sliding, but my coach made me go to the hospital.” Despite initial concern that the ice burn had reached the bone, he was able to continue competing.
Day’s mother, Lisa, said she was unaware of her son’s injury until he was already off the mountain and on his way to treatment. “I kept looking for him at the end of the run,” she said, “and when I didn’t see him, I knew something had happened.”
Such injuries are common, Day said with a nonchalance that seemed more than mere bravado. He sustained a similar injury on the inside of the same foot earlier in the season, as well as a bad burn on his right hip.
St. Moritz was a new experience for Day, a seasoned traveler who knows most of the runs in World Cup competition. St. Moritz is the oldest track on the circuit, its origins dating back more than 100 years, and it is carved out of natural snow each year, according to Day.
“We went celebrity hunting the first day we were there, but we didn’t really see anyone,” he said of the alpine playground for the wealthy. “We did hear about a billionaire’s wedding where Gwyneth Paltrow was supposedly a guest, but we didn’t find it.”
In past years, Day competed in both singles and doubles races, but his late start on the circuit this year because of the change of doubles partner left less time for singles competition. He described his singles season as “disappointing,” using the same word to characterize his eighth-place finish at the Youth Olympic Games in Lausanne, Switzerland, in January.
Day said he prefers the camaraderie of doubles, and emphasized that it was at least as demanding as singles. Having someone with whom to celebrate victories or lament less-successful results is also a bonus.
Luge is divided into three age groups — junior, youth and senior — and Day is only now aging out of the first group. Only a pair of extraordinary future seasons in the youth division or a hole in Team USA’s senior lineup would create an opportunity in 2022 to join the senior team.
Although luge racers can continue to compete well into their 30s and beyond — “the best racers are the older guys,” Day said — he doesn’t envision continuing after the 2026 Olympics in Italy, when he will be 23 — depending on his results. The 2022 Beijing games represent a distant, unrealistic possibility, he said, because he does not have time to accumulate the necessary points on the World Cup circuit to qualify.
Day, who is home schooled and will earn a high school diploma this year, looks forward to college after he finishes his racing career, but has only the most general plans. “Right now, I’m just focused on luge,” he said, and getting to those 2026 Olympics.
Day became interested in the sport while watching the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia. “I just wanted to try it,” he said.
His parents researched the path he would need to take, and contacted Team USA’s scouts. He showed a natural aptitude for the sled and was invited to train at the U.S. Olympic facility in Lake Placid, N.Y., the scene of the 1980 Winter Games. From there, he has never looked back.
“It just always felt natural,” he said.
In the off-season, Day looks forward to “eating and sleeping,” he said. He will begin training seriously for the 2020-21 season in late spring.