It had been eight years since Erin Hamlin last stood on a world championship podium. But in Igls, Austria, the 30-year-old luger won not just one but three medals at the 2017 FIL World Championships, including silver in the women’s singles race. It was a great way to go out in what Hamlin said is likely her last world championships.
Hamlin began her medal streak on Friday in the sprint, winning gold. A one-run race where timing begins 100 meters in, the sprint is a relatively new discipline in luge.
Then on Saturday, Hamlin finished second in the main event, the traditional two-run singles race. She finished 0.213 seconds behind German Tatjana Huefner, who won her fifth world title in singles.
Hamlin and U.S. teammates Tucker West and Matt Mortensen/Jayson Terdiman wrapped up their best-ever world championships by finishing second in the relay, 0.2 seconds behind Germany.
“It’s awesome. I’m very excited,” Hamlin said on a conference call from Igls. “I knew I could do well here. I just had to keep my cool and slide like I know how. I’m very thankful I was able to do that and glad the weather held up. It was starting to get warmer and warmer, and I was getting nervous.”
The gold and two silver medals will fit nicely with Hamlin’s world championship gold medal that she won in 2009 and her Olympic bronze medal from 2014.
Hamlin’s three medals are the first world championship medals for USA Luge since her victory in 2009 and the bronze medal in doubles won by Mark Grimmette and Brian Martin at the same 2009 event. Her three individual medals are also the only women’s medals won by any U.S. athlete.
A luge veteran, Hamlin said she feels “a little bit like the old lady around town here.” She was only 22 years old when she was crowned world champion on her home track in Lake Placid in 2009. She then had “a couple of dark years” after the 2009 world championships, where she struggled to make the podium in world cups, then finished a disappointing 16th at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games.
Since winning a bronze medal at the Sochi Olympic Games, she has gained consistency in world cup races. She has won two world cup races this year; last year, she won one and finished second three times. But the closest she had come to the world championship podium was fourth in 2015.
So what led her back to the world championship podium?
1) Patience. In luge, medals are won — and lost — by hundredths of a second. Sometimes even thousandths of a second, as USA Lugers Emily Sweeney and Summer Britcher found out in Igls. In the sprint, Sweeney missed the bronze medal by 0.005 seconds. In the singles event, Britcher missed bronze by 0.035 seconds. But she was crowned the 2017 U23 world champion.
When asked what helped Hamlin win another world championship medal, assistant coach Bengt Walden credited patience. Over the years, he has watched Hamlin work tirelessly to shave off as much time as she can.
“In our sport, you try to find hundredths,” he said. “Some days you gain some, some days you lose some.”
2) Extra training runs. Hamlin’s medals on the Igls track came as a bit of a surprise. The track is short and favors strong starters, and Hamlin is not known for her strong start. Her strength is finding speed down the track.
But the USA Luge team arrived in Igls earlier than usual. And the extra training runs helped.
The weather held out too. Clear and cold weather made for perfect sliding conditions during the week, and Hamlin’s training was consistently fast. She was able to find the flow on the track and work on her position.
“I had a great week of training,” said Hamlin. “I was just hoping I could keep it together and run it through the weekend.”
3) Support crew. When asked to point out the biggest contributor to her medal-winning sliding in Igls, Hamlin credited “our awesome coaches.” With the weather warming for the weekend, the coaches — head coach Miro Zayonc, assistants Walden, Lubomir Mick and Bill Tavares — put in many hours tweaking the sleds so that they would slide fast in the changing conditions. Such tweaks involve adjusting parts on the sled and runners by mere millimeters.
“They’ve been doing a lot of work on our sleds making sure we have everything we need to do what we do, which is to go down the hill and slide really well,” said Hamlin. “I knew going into the race yesterday and today, all I had to do was my job, which is to slide fast. That coupled with good sled setup ended up being a great combo.”
4) Great teamwork. For the past few years, USA Luge has seen more and more success, with not only Hamlin reaching the podium, but also Sweeney, Britcher, and on the men’s side West and Chris Mazdzer. Mortensen and Terdiman in doubles have also stood on their first world cup podiums this year. They all point to each other when asked what has brought them success.
“It pushes me, and that’s been a huge factor in me still being able to perform at this level, having the young guns keeping me on my toes,” said Hamlin. “If I didn’t have that, I don’t think I would be able to sustain it. It’s easy to get comfortable in situations where you don’t have anyone to compete with, so I’m very thankful to have that.”
“We definitely give each other some of the best competition on the circuit,” she added. “It for sure makes our team strong.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered four Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.