Go For The Gold


Erin Hamlin 
Erin Hamlin competes during the luge women's singles of the
Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games at Whistler Sliding
Centre on Feb. 16, 2010.

Four years ago, Erin Hamlin’s luge career hit the big time. In front of hundreds of fans raucously and rhythmically chanting “Errrr-in Hammm-lin,” she won the 2009 luge world championship title on her home track in Lake Placid, N.Y., and broke a German juggernaut. For 16 straight years, German women had owned the crown, and they were stunned. It was, as USA Luge CEO Ron Rossi put it, luge’s equivalent of a “Miracle on Ice.”

Hamlin carried her momentum into the 2010 Olympic year, earning three World Cup bronze medals leading up to the Games — the only non-German to reach the World Cup podium that season. The reigning world champion from Remsen, N.Y., was clearly an Olympic medal favorite heading to Vancouver.

But then tragedy struck on the Whistler track with the death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili during training on the day of the Opening Ceremony. In response to fears about the track’s speed, the luge starts were lowered. The men started from the women’s start, and the women and doubles were lowered to the junior start. Leading directly into curve six, this start left very little time to transition to the driving position on the sled. On a shorter course (that was about eight seconds slower then from the previous start), it was difficult for sliders who don’t have quick starts to make up time down the track. And Hamlin’s start is not her forte.

“I do better on longer tracks because I have more time to catch back up,” Hamlin explained recently. “Cutting the track down to four curves shorter definitely affected that.”
She finished a disappointing 16th in her second Olympic Games (she took 12th at the 2006 Olympics in Torino).

Though the 26-year-old slider is gracious about the experience and makes no excuses — saying “it was still the same track, and everyone was still in the exact same position” — Rossi said that lowering the start changed the tenor of the race.

“[Erin] had medal expectations, and in fact, in official training prior to the lowering of the start, she was right there,” he said. “So I think it was very deflating.”

A model of sportsmanship, Hamlin appeared unaffected by her disappointment. But her results since then have told a different story. She won another World Cup bronze to kick off the 2010-11 season and followed it up with yet another in December 2010. But since then, the former world champion has only stepped on the World Cup podium twice: She helped USA Luge win a silver medal in a team relay in January 2012 and a month later claimed an individual bronze at a World Cup in Latvia. And she began struggling with consistency, finishing sixth in one World Cup and 16th in the next. Despite the title of world champion on her resume, she had lost some confidence.

“You get that shot once every four years,” said Rossi of Hamlin’s dashed Olympic dreams. “The Super Bowl is every year, the World Series is every year. Ours is every four years. That was probably a little hard for her to come back from.”

Erin Hamlin 
Erin Hamlin takes a preliminary run in the Tiscover Challenge Cup
during the FIL World Cup on Nov. 20, 2009.

Coaching changes in the past three years were also “a lot to transition through,” Hamlin said. After the 2010 Olympics, Wolfgang Schaedler’s contract was not renewed, and five-time Olympian Mark Grimmette served as coach, as well as sports program director. Then long-time U.S. junior coach, Miro Zayonc, was appointed head coach in October 2012.

Hamlin has been in luge since August 1999, when she was 12 and participated in a USA Luge Slider Search in Syracuse, N.Y., near her hometown of Remsen. And for over a decade, she had seen her results mostly improve. Now suddenly it seemed as though she had hit a downward sloping plateau. But the unflappable slider is philosophical about her downswing in results.

“Everyone has a place in their career where things aren’t going ideally,” she said.

Grimmette said that the coaches have been working to bring back Hamlin’s confidence, noting that confidence in luge often “ebbs and flows” throughout a slider’s career. Increased confidence has helped Hamlin achieve consistent results again. The past two seasons, she has placed fifth, sixth, or seventh in 11 World Cup races, not including team relays. She also finished sixth at the 2013 World Championships on the 2010 Olympic track in Whistler in late January.

“I’d like to jump a little higher than that and be consistently better,” she said. “But just getting those consistent results back has been good.”

Perhaps what has helped Hamlin the most is having a strong U.S. women’s luge team. Julia Clukey, a 2010 Olympian, is better than ever after undergoing skull surgery in March 2011 to help correct Arnold Chiari Syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes muscle weakness, headaches, and vertigo, among other symptoms.

In the 2013 Lake Placid World Cup on Feb. 8, Clukey finished second and won her first World Cup medal. She was the first of four American women in the top 10 — a position usually enjoyed by the Germans. Hamlin finished fifth.

“This past year, having Julia come back and be healthy again has been awesome,” said Hamlin. “She’s had a great season, and it’s really nice having someone there. Last year, I finished out the season as the only girl on the traveling team.”

Not only does Hamlin have a teammate and friend on the road, but they push each other in training, as do Kate Hansen, 2008 junior world luge champion, and Emily Sweeney, reigning junior world champion. At the Lake Placid World Cup, Hansen finished sixth and Sweeney ninth.

On Feb. 23-24, 2013, U.S. sliders will compete for the first time on the 2014 Olympic track in Sochi, Russia. The track, which uniquely features uphill sections leading into three curves, is very different than other tracks in the world. Grimmette describes it as a gliding track — more like a freeway as opposed to a curvy mountain road. The U.S. team had the opportunity to train on the track for one week prior to this season.

“It took me awhile to get the rhythm just because it’s so new and the driving is so different,” Hamlin said. “By the end of the week, I started to get the feel of it, and it’s a lot of fun.”

The track is one of the longer tracks in the world, which will benefit Hamlin, and Grimmette says the coaches will work on her start this summer. But Grimmette also believes her driving will shine on the Sochi track.

“When she slides and goes into a curve, she has a really soft touch,” he said. “You can see how soft she is when she takes a curve, and that translates into speed down the track.”

Rossi also has confidence that Hamlin is ready for another run at an Olympic medal, noting that she has refined her sliding to the point where she is closer to where she was in 2009.

“Erin is one of our lead medal favorites for Sochi,” he said.

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.