Erin Hamlin came into the 2015-16 season wanting to win a FIL World Cup — a two-run race, that is. The former world champion and reigning Olympic bronze medalist won a one-run sprint race last year.
Not only did she win the women’s luge world cup in Lake Placid, New York, she led a Team USA podium sweep — the first podium sweep for the U.S. in singles luge history (Team USA swept the podium in doubles luge in 1996). Emily Sweeney finished second and Summer Britcher third.
In the team relay, Hamlin helped Team USA win its first-ever gold medal in the event — along with yesterday’s men’s winner, Chris Mazdzer, and the new doubles team of Justin Krewson and Andrew Sherk.
With the team gold, plus Mazdzer’s gold and Tucker West’s silver medal yesterday, Team USA claimed six world cup medals this weekend and is on its way to breaking last year’s record of 13 medals won throughout the season.
After crossing the finish line and sliding up the finish chute, Hamlin ran to the podium and hugged her teammates.
In taking the win, Hamlin also set a new track record — breaking the previous mark that she set when she won the 2009 world championship title here in Lake Placid.
|(L-R) Germany's Natalie Geisenberger lauds Team USA's Emily Sweeney, Erin Hamlin and Summer Britcher for their podium sweep at the FIL World Cup on Dec. 5, 2015 in Lake Placid, N.Y.|
Hamlin’s two-run time of 1:27.961 was 0.175 seconds ahead of Sweeney and 0.260 ahead of Britcher.
All three American women beat reigning Olympic and world champion Natalie Geisenberger from Germany, who claimed fourth.
While Hamlin, 29, has a handful of world cup podiums in both two-heat and sprint races — including a silver medal from the 2014 Lake Placid World Cup women’s race — these are the first medals for her younger teammates.
Both Britcher, 21, and Sweeney, 22, came close in the last year — with fourth- and fifth-place finishes.
“I say every year I want to have clean strong runs, and that is true,” Sweeney said on the eve of the race. “Of course in my mind, there are those tangible goals. I would love to have a podium. I haven’t had one. I’m right there, I’ve shown I can be there. I just need to keep it together. I want a podium.”
She led training and carried her momentum into the race — as well as a new level of maturity.
“Every year, I keep learning,” she said. “We always say this is an experience-based sport. For me, that encompasses everything. It’s not just experience when you’re on the sled. It’s experience in life, and it sounds cliché, but I’m growing up, and I feel more confident.”
At the first world cup in Igls, Austria, last weekend, the women came close to putting two U.S. sliders on the podium. After the first run, Hamlin and Sweeney sat second and third. But then snow began falling on the track and slowed the track for the first-run leaders. Hamlin and Sweeney fell to seventh and sixth, respectively — behind Britcher in fifth.
The youngest on the women’s team, Britcher has made big strides in the past year. The 2012 Youth Olympian and 2014 Olympian won the start championship in September, then led the women at the first world cup.
But coach Mark Grimmette is happy with the entire squad.
“Right now, I’m excited about how they’re sliding in general,” he said. “The three of them are very solid.”
Known for her great position on the sled and ability to gain speed down the track, Hamlin’s biggest weakness in luge has been her start. She stayed home in upstate New York during the offseason and worked out at SPI Fitness outside Utica — a refreshing and different perspective on gaining strength.
“I feel like I am not sore and tired all the time, which has been huge,” Hamlin said. “I’ve done a lot of functional work and body weight stuff instead of trying to max stuff in the gym all the time. A lot of times that would make me bulkier than I’m comfortable being.”
She is also happy that she has avoided summer training injuries. The three-time Olympian is “not a spring chicken anymore.” But as a reminder of the toll that hard physical training can take, she then adds, “I’m enjoying my last year in my 20s.”
In the first two world cups, the new workout seems to have helped her starts. Her start times averaged 13th last year. She’s a top-10 starter so far this season.
“At different stages of your career, you have to learn how to get your body into shape and to be able to have the fastest start that you possibly can,” said Grimmette. “And I think Erin’s doing a good job with that.”
For Sweeney — whose smile lit up the finish area and the podium — this season is way better than last, if just for the bib that she is wearing.
After a tough 2014 season, she returned to world cup racing last year but was given a bib number in the 60s - 68, she remembers. This year, she started off the season with Bib 8.
“It’s so good,” she said, beaming. “I know it sounds so trivial. But after a bad season, I came back, didn’t get my name on the bib, (and the number was) so high. It was a reminder every time I looked down that I had a bad year the year before.
“Now to look down and have an 8, it just feels good. It’s a personal thing, but it feels good.”
So does a world cup medal around her neck.
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered three Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.