KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — Erin Hamlin came to Sochi with a hope and a dream but no expectations. She had had great expectations going to the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games. As the reigning world champion, she thought it was her best chance to win an Olympic medal. Then she finished 16th.
“I knew that’s not how I wanted my Olympic legacy to end,” she said.
Now, after four solid runs at the Sanki Sliding Center, Hamlin is a legend in American luge. The 27-year-old three-time Olympian from Remsen, N.Y., is the first U.S. singles luger to win an Olympic medal. She finished third behind the German juggernaut of Natalie Geisenberger and Tatjana Huefner.
But on a damp night in Russia, the bronze medal felt like gold to Hamlin.
“I’m stoked,” she said with the smile never leaving her face. “I can’t even … who knew?”
She also broke a German/Austrian hold on the Olympic podium. Since 1980, only Germany and Austria have won Olympic medals in women’s luge. And since women’s luge debuted at the 1964 Olympic Winter Games, Italy is the only other country that has managed to steal the podium (and only twice) from the Germans and Austrians.
“It’s a huge moment in U.S. luge history, our first singles medal,” said Gordy Sheer, who won the first Olympic medal period for USA Luge with a silver in doubles at the Nagano 1998 Olympic Winter Games, along with partner Chris Thorpe. Sheer is now USA Luge’s director of marketing and sponsorship. Mark Grimmette and Brian Martin also medaled in 1998 with the bronze behind Sheer and Thorpe.
“It’s really a testament to our athletes, coaches and sponsors who have been sticking with us, what we’re doing all across the board,” he added. “It’s just a great moment, and it’s worth sitting down and celebrating.”
But Hamlin’s medal was somewhat unexpected. The 2009 world champion had not stood on a world cup podium in two years, and this year, her results had waffled between fourth and 10th.
In contrast to the 2010 Games, Hamlin came to Sochi relaxed and with no expectations. She just wanted to have four solid runs at the Sochi Games and enjoy the experience.
Hamlin also wasn’t certain how she would do on the relatively new Sochi track. In previous training, she had struggled.
“When we first came here, it took me a long time to get it,” she said. “At that point, I was thinking to myself, ‘Oh my gosh, this is how the next Olympics is going to go.’”
But in the past week, she settled in and began to feel the rhythm of the unique track, with its three uphill sections. Her six training runs were very consistent and put her near the front of the field, even though she was training in an old speedsuit and booties that weren’t aerodynamic.
“Erin’s a big race kind of person, as illustrated by her world championship in 2009,” said Sheer. “When I saw the training times, and I saw what she was wearing, I knew she was sandbagging, and she had a couple of tenths in her versus the rest of the field.”
In her first race run, Hamlin came down in second behind Geisenberger, but 0.037 of a second in front of Huefner, the defending Olympic champion. Second run, Huefner put 0.062 of a second back on Hamlin, bumping the American to third. Both women remained behind Geisenberger, the current world champion and 2012-13 overall world cup champion.
Hamlin went to bed Monday night in medal contention but slept better than she had slept all week.
“Watching Erin this week, especially the past few days, I’ve been really inspired by her,” said Summer Britcher, who finished 15th. “She’s in third place, and she’s stayed so calm and so determined and the way she’s been able to keep her cool is something I’m trying to do in future years.”
With solid third and fourth runs today, Hamlin threw her arms up after she crossed the finish line, then laid back in relief on her sled. Her friends and family, including brothers Ryan and Sean dressed in American-flag onesies, seemed to fill the stands.
“They started out with body paint in Torino, which they did again in Whistler,” said Hamlin with a smirk. “Here they got onesies, so they’ve learned to bundle for a Winter Games. But this is the warmest one yet, so they timed it badly.”
Kate Hansen was thrilled with 10th place at her first Winter Games. But not as thrilled as Hamlin, who was happily stunned by her feat.
“When I won worlds, I was the first American woman to ever win worlds,” Hamlin said. “So to be able to do this as well, I feel like I’m really hopefully paving the way for future generations of female lugers in the U.S.”
Peggy Shinn is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.