PARK CITY, Utah — Erin Hamlin and Emily Sweeney took advantage of a monumental opportunity for their sport as women’s luge was broadcast live on NBC for the first time outside of the Olympic Winter Games on Saturday. Showcasing the strength and speed of the U.S. women, Hamlin and Sweeney won women’s singles gold and silver at the Park City World Cup, part of the first-ever Team USA Winter Champions Series.
And then they turned around and repeated that 1-2 performance in the women’s sprint race less than 90 minutes later.
Hamlin, the 2014 Olympic bronze medalist, had only ever won two world cup golds before Saturday; the first in a sprint race in Altenberg, Germany, in February 2015, and the second in the singles race in Lake Placid, New York, in December 2015.
She entered Park City looking to find the same success she experienced last season when she earned silver in both the women’s singles and women’s sprint races on the 2002 Olympic track.
While it is one of two tracks in the U.S., Hamlin, 30, has struggled to find the same comfort she does on the Lake Placid track.
“It’s a track in the United States, but I didn’t train here a ton (coming up in the sport),” the Remsen, New York, native said. “I’m from outside Lake Placid, so that was my home track. We come out here a little bit in the fall for training, but it’s warm and so I didn’t have the solid runs I have in Lake Placid, so it still felt like a foreign track.”
Everything came together for Hamlin on the Park City track this week and she bettered her breakthrough silver-medal performance from last season, winning Saturday’s two-run singles race in a time of 1:29.257. Sweeney was second in 1:29.384, also earning her first medal of the season, and Canada's Alex Gough took bronze in 1:29.584. Team USA put three women in the top five as Summer Britcher was fifth in 1:29.785.
Hamlin’s gold in the singles race is not only her first win on the Park City track, but also her first win in a two-run singles race outside of her home track in Lake Placid, New York. It also marks her return to the podium for the first time since last season, when she earned four medals in a row and finished the season ranked fourth in the standings.
“It feels really awesome,” Hamlin said after the singles win. “Not necessarily expected, but I definitely wanted to have a good race here. I knew I could after training this week; it went really well. It was a little bit different conditions, but cold, clear race days are what we look for. Our equipment runs really well on this type of day. It does give you some butterflies because the ice can be pretty sketchy, but it was perfect.
“It was exactly what we wanted. Even going last in the second run it didn’t affect the ice at all, so I was really happy with it.”
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Hamlin was the 13th of 24 women to start the first run and watched from the leader’s box as the rest of the field failed to match her blistering time. Sweeney was fourth in the first run, but knew she had more speed in her for the second.
“I knew the times were really close and I had some time that I could find in my first run,” Sweeney said. “It wasn’t a perfect run… so I felt good, but it was kind of like the pressure was off, too, being in that fourth position. I didn’t need to slide defensively.”
The second run had all the drama befitting of the sport’s landmark live broadcast.
Sweeney laid down a solid run, .052 faster than her first, and waited in the leader’s box to see if she could move onto the podium. German powerhouse Natalie Geisenberger slid next, and fell back to fourth, guaranteeing Sweeney of a medal with two sliders remaining: Tatyana Ivanova of Russia and Hamlin.
“I got really excited because Emily was in second place,” Hamlin said. “I was sitting by the start, and then Tatyana crashed and that always throws you a little bit because you don’t expect it. She’s such a phenomenal slider and it took me by surprise. So I went back inside to stay warm. Emily moved up. When there’s an American in the lead, it’s easier; it takes a little bit of the pressure off.”
Hamlin crushed her run once again, even beating her first-run time by .041, securing the gold and a 1-2 performance by the Americans, perfect for the millions of new luge fans watching at home.
“It’s the first time ever for us (live on NBC), and to be able to give this kind of show, I’m so excited that it went well,” Hamlin said. “And it’s cool that so many people will get exposed to the sport and get to see it. Even though it can be cold for spectators, it’s still really exciting. You never know what can happen. Ivanova was in second and she crashed, which was super surprising. You never know what can happen; it’s a really on-edge sport. I’m so glad that this sport that we all love and have a lot of fun doing will reach the masses a little more.”
While Hamlin was the only athlete to take home gold, Sweeney said her performance felt like a win to her. Saturday’s silver medals were only the second and third for the 23-year-old, after taking silver in the U.S. women’s sweep last season in Lake Placid, and signified her comeback from a wrist injury that had been hampering her performance.
“I injured my wrist last spring and ended up getting surgery Aug. 29, so I got my cast off three days before we started sliding,” Sweeney said. “It was really difficult, not only physically, but also mentally. I didn’t get to train and prepare the way I’d like to. I guess I’m overcoming that and I’m hoping the way I’m sliding can just continue.”
The women then had roughly one hour between celebrating their win together and the start of the women’s sprint race. The top 15 finishers in the singles race qualify for the sprint, a one-run race where the timing starts 100 meters down the track, putting less of an emphasis on a strong start.
Hamlin and Sweeney were again first and second, finishing in 32.881 and 33.034 seconds, respectively. This time, Germany’s Tatjana Huefner was third in 33.040, while Britcher was fourth, just two thousandths of a second from a Team USA sweep.
“It’s kind of a blur, to be honest, but it’s awesome,” said Hamlin, who crammed in a quick snack in her brief time between runs. “It’s great that we got to back up our world cup with that consistency and it’s going to be good to go into the Christmas break with that and go into the second half strong.”
The world cup breaks for the holidays and the second half resumes Jan. 5-6 in Koenigssee, Germany. Hamlin’s wins moved her up from ninth to third in the standings, with Sweeney going from eighth to sixth and Britcher ninth to seventh.