LAKE PLACID, N.Y. — This was it for USA Luge’s Erin Hamlin. Her final two races on her home track. The four-time Olympian is set to retire after the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018.
But on a snowy day, the races did not go like she hoped.
With Team Hamlin cheering trackside — a big group of friends and family from nearby Remsen, New York — Hamlin, the 2014 Olympic bronze medalist, was in third after the first run of women’s singles. But snow on the track slowed her second run. She fell to sixth, finishing more than a tenth of a second off the podium.
In the sprint, she finished fourth.
“It’s better than the last couple races,” said Hamlin, who has struggled in four of the last five world cup races. “I had a great second run. There was nothing wrong with it. There’s a lot of snow up there. It’s a bummer that this happened.”
Hamlin has won six medals on the Lake Placid track. She won the world title here in 2009, then five world cup medals in the ensuing years, including one gold (in 2015). Only Germany’s Natalie Geisenberger has won more in Lake Placid.
The reigning Olympic gold medalist, Geisenberger clocked 1:28.211 to win her eighth world cup medal on the Lake Placid track. Alex Gough from Canada finished second in 1:28.315. Kimberley McRae, also from Canada, rounded out the podium in 1:28.352.
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In the sprint, Dajana Eitberger from Germany won, Gough was second and Geisenberger third, giving her a ninth medal on the Lake Placid track.
Competing for the final time in Lake Placid, Hamlin thought she would be nostalgic.
“I’ve raced here so many times, it’s kind of just another race in Lake Placid,” she said.
She is approaching her final Olympics in the same straightforward way, not emotionally marking each “last time.”
“To be honest, it definitely just feels like another season,” she said. “I have things that I want to accomplish, and I just want to be happy with my sliding.”
Over her storied luge career, Hamlin has won 23 world cup medals, four world championship medals and an Olympic bronze. She is the most decorated singles slider in USA Luge history.
Now 31, Hamlin wants to end her luge career by winning another Olympic medal in PyeongChang.
Then she wants to return to the Lake Placid next year with Team Hamlin and cheer on her former teammates.
“I told them they have to keep coming at least one or two more years so I can join that side,” Hamlin said. “Because they seem to have a good time.”
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Behind Hamlin, Summer Britcher, 23, finished the Lake Placid World Cup singles and sprint races in eighth and Emily Sweeney rallied to 17th after a tough first run. She did not qualify for the sprint.
This is the first world cup since Hamlin, Britcher and Sweeney qualified for the 2018 Olympic team. And in front of a contingent of Team Sween (family and friends dressed in neon green hats and gloves), Sweeney was emotional. It has been a long road for the 24-year-old slider to make her first Olympic team on her third attempt.
“I don’t think it’s hit me, I don’t think it’s sunk in yet,” said Sweeney with her huge smile. “Every time someone will say ‘Hey, Olympian,’ it maybe gets a little more real. But it hasn’t yet. Maybe when I walk in to the Opening Ceremony or when we get the team gear, maybe then it will hit.”
Sweeney has had her eye on the Olympic Games since she was 7. Back then, her sister Megan (six years older) began competing in luge. The youngest Sweeney sibling, Emily was determined to steer clear of sports. She had spent enough time being dragged to her older siblings’ sporting events, where she “picked dandelions and was bored.”
But luge looked like fun.
“I definitely looked up to [Megan] a lot,” said Emily. “I still do look up to her. Just watching her do it was great, and she was traveling around and missing some school, having fun. I just thought I want to do that too.”
Emily had to wait until she was 10 years old to try luge. And she was soon racing junior world cups. Then in 2010, Emily had a race-off with Megan for the final spot on the Olympic team competing in Vancouver. Megan won.
“It was fine,” said Emily, still smiling but with a slight edge to her voice. “Obviously, it wasn’t fine. I would have loved to have been there and competed with my sister.”
Emily traveled to Vancouver to cheer on Megan. As she watched the women’s luge race, she realized that she had beaten some of the sliders who were competing. It dawned on her that: “I am Olympic caliber, I am just not an Olympian.”
Megan retired from luge after Vancouver, but Emily continued. Sochi was just four years away.
But in the lead-up to the 2014 Olympic Games, Emily was far back from qualifying.
“I think that I didn’t really address my feelings of 2010 in a proper time,” she said. “Then it came back around in 2013 when we were doing the [Olympic] qualification process. I had prepared for it, I had trained, I had put everything into it. But it just didn’t come together.”
Emily was crushed. She did not train for six months, nor was she motivated to do much else.
But then the military called. Emily is in the Army National Guard, and she had to attend a three-week warrior leaders course. It was the nudge she needed to get her life back on track and start training again.
In the 2014-2015 season, Emily climbed as high as fourth in results. Then in 2015-2016, she climbed onto the world cup podium for the first time.
At the end of that season, she hurt her wrist. By June 2016, she knew she had to have surgery to repair the damage. It was another crushing blow.
“They say that there are years that you can come back from injuries, and that was not one of the years,” she said, showing her wrist that she still tapes when competing. “The year before the Olympics is not a year that you can really have surgery and come back from it. But I did. I learned a lot from it, and here I am.”
Last month, Emily won her first world cup — a sprint race in Winterberg, Germany.
Now she is on her way to her first Olympic Games. Sister Megan hugged her after the Lake Placid race.
“Oh my god, I’m crying,” said Megan. “It has been a long road. I’m so proud. I’m so happy. I can’t wait to see her compete.”
“She’s resilient,” Megan added. “She had a goal, and she went for it. It’s so impressive, way better than I ever was.”
Now Emily will finally wear the Olympic gear that she has coveted for so long. She has lived at the U.S. Olympic Training Center for years, yet has only worn clothing with the Olympic rings twice — when it was required.
“Whenever I saw people wearing the gear, it was just another reminder that I’m not an Olympian,” said Emily. “This time around it will be great just because I have earned the right to wear all of the clothing.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered four Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.