U.S. luger saves ‘Today’ show hosts

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – If not for a quick-thinking luge slider from Long Island, Matt Lauer and Al Roker’s days hosting the “Today” show might have been numbered.

Lauer and Roker filmed a segment earlier this week, as part of NBC’s Olympic coverage, in which they try doubles luge at the Sanki Sliding Center. It was the second time the two have teamed up for a little reality television at the Olympics. They did a similar doubles luge segment at the 2006 Winter Games in Torino, Italy.

USA Luge press officer Sandy Caligiore of Lake Placid said the shoot took place over two mornings. On Thursday morning, which Caligiore called the “ham-it-up part of the shoot,” Lauer and Roker got some instructions and coaching from the U.S. doubles luge team of Matt Mortensen and Preston Griffall, who train in Lake Placid.

“They were gathered on the finish deck and going through the motions of how you maneuver a doubles sled,” Caligiore said, “what the front guy does, what the back guy does.”

In Torino, Roker was on top and Lauer was the bottom driver. For their second trip down the track in Russia, they switched roles.

“Al got into the back of the sled first,” Caligiore said. “Matt (Lauer) took his seat and they got into the sled position. And that came with plenty of jokes, mostly coming from Al.”

The second day of the shoot started around 6:30 a.m. Friday morning. The sled Roker and Lauer would ride was put on the ice at curve 15, roughly the start of the last quarter of the track. It’s a point that starts out with some pitch, so the sled could gain a little momentum, Cailigiore said.

“They get into the sled after being re-coached for the final time,” Cailigiore said. “Preston is going to send them off, and Matt Mortensen is on the other side with a few of us in the catcher’s position. We don’t know exactly how far up they’re going to go, so we’re just kind of guessing.”

Roker and Lauer, wearing tight stars-and-stripes-colored spandex luge suits and helmets, begin their run, but no one in the finish area can see the sled because the track’s shades are up.

“And we can barely hear the sled coming, which is a good sign,” Caligiore said. “They come by, they’re all giddy and yakking it up, and they go right by everybody, through the finish line and up the outrun. Matt (Lauer) and Al get out, and they’re four feet off the ice. They’re talking about what a great run it was, high-fiving and all this stuff.

“I can’t remember who it was, but one of them brought up the idea of going a second time. Everybody was on board with it because we still had time.”

The sled was moved back over to curve 15, and the “Today” hosts got ready for their second run. The crew at the finish line moved up the track to where the sled stopped on its first run, expecting that’s where the two would end up again.

“Second run they take off, and it’s not anywhere near as quiet,” Caligiore said. “You can hear scraping and a couple of hits, and you know this is not going as good as the first one. And we’re going, ‘Oh boy.'”

Every time the sled his the wall, it slows down. So instead of going through the finish line, it stopped short in an area where the track is angled uphill, and Lauer and Roker start sliding back down the track, headfirst.

“Not a good thing,” Caligiore said. “At which point, Matt Mortensen goes flying down the track, I mean flying, and executes a ‘Today’ show save.”

In a video posted on the “Today” website, Mortensen sprints down the side of the track, dives headfirst onto the ice and grabs the sled. He slides on his belly for a few seconds before getting to his feet, all the while holding the sled and eventually slowing it to a stop.

“All I could think about was Matt (Lauer) falling off the sled and then getting hit, or them going backwards and Al hurting his neck,” Mortensen said. “I was at a dead sprint because they picked up so much speed going backwards, and I literally had to dive because I couldn’t just bend over and grab them. I didn’t really think about it. I just reacted.”

“It was terrifying there for a little while,” Lauer said when the segment was shown during Friday’s “Today” show.

What would have happened if the two kept going backward?

“We don’t even want to think about that,” Caligiore said. “When the fellas got off the sled, they were a little bit banged up and looked a little bit shell-shocked. But they got up and after they dusted themselves off, they continued to be good sports about it. Everybody was OK.”

There was no talk of a third run?

“Thankfully, we were out of time,” Caligiore said.

“We’re going to turn in our spandex now forever and try something a little tamer next time,” Lauer said.

NBC aired the two runs in two separate segments during Friday’s “Today” show. They’re also posted on the show’s website.