Erin Hamlin has gone to “the cold side.”
That’s what she calls her two-week stint as an assistant coach for Team USA at the luge world championships, which begin Friday in the aptly named Winterberg, Germany.
“Everyone is like, ‘Oh you do luge, you must love the cold,’” said Hamlin, the 2014 Olympic bronze medalist in women’s singles who retired after the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018. “And I’m like, ‘I sit inside for most of my days.’”
Not anymore. While athletes retreat to the warmth of the start house and finish house between runs, the coaches, Hamlin said, “are out there in the elements braving the cold. They stand outside the whole session.”
Brrrrr. Hamlin has been “finding little sunshine spots and standing in them” during breaks in training to keep from freezing.
Yet she hasn’t looked longingly at the start house – she can’t even see it from where she’s stationed – nor has she yearned to zoom down the track.
“Not at all,” Hamlin said. “It’s actually been pretty cool to be able to be here and not have any nagging or negative vibes about that. I’m totally good with not being on a sled.”
When she arrived in Winterberg on Jan. 15, Hamlin admitted it was a “weird feeling. I’m in the same hotel, same routine, same feel being in Germany, the whole deal. It’s kind of like I never left.”
Hamlin, 32, started luge at age 12 and retired after her fourth Olympics in PyeongChang, where she was the Team USA flag bearer at the Opening Ceremony.
After winning two world championship gold medals and two silvers and accumulating 23 world cup podiums, including four victories, Hamlin is now living what most people take for granted as a normal life.
She married Jonathan Hodge in July and for the first time since the winter of 2001-02 Hamlin wasn’t on the road with the national team.
She spent the holidays in the United States with family, enjoying “the little mundane things like grocery shopping and cooking and getting the foods that I want at the grocery store.”
That’s instead of living out of a suitcase for four months, eating hotel food and doing her laundry in a hotel sink.
But Hamlin still had her luge life at her fingertips. She stayed in touch with staff and teammates and kept up with the results, though she said, “Full confession, I don’t get up in the middle of the night, like the die-hard parents always did for years.”
Hamlin looked first thing in the morning, preferring to watch the playback instead of peeking at results or social media.
In mid-December she went to the world cup in Lake Placid, New York, where she took her ceremonial “retirement” run on her home track as the forerunner for the doubles race. The Remsen, New York, native borrowed her old sled that had been passed down to up-and-comer Brittney Arndt.
The day before, Hamlin took a training run “just to get the cobwebs out,” then unexpectedly found herself nervous for the real thing.
It was a good run, and she enjoyed it, but it gave her a sore neck. “I was kind of like, ‘How did I do this for 18 years?’” Hamlin said, “But it really told me that I was very content with my decision. It was a really good test for me.”
Yet she wasn’t ready to give up the sport altogether.
When USA Luge officials broached the subject of helping out for two weeks, Hamlin slid right into the job.
“Generally, we try to keep athletes involved after they retire,” said Mark Grimmette, the sports program director for USA Luge and a two-time Olympic medalist. “We want to keep the knowledge that they’ve gained over the years within the sport and within USA and try to keep the legacy going.”
He said that Hamlin, the first American to medal in singles luge at the Olympic Winter Games, has the qualities he was seeking for the Team USA staff, which always beefs up for world championships to get more eyes on the track.
“She’s very articulate, she’s fresh off the sled, which always helps, and she’s also very calm and easygoing,” Grimmette said. “She’s levelheaded and that’s also very important for a coach.”
Female coaches are a rarity in luge. Grimmette said Team USA had a female manager in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Currently a woman coaches the C team and another works with younger athletes.
Both Grimmette and Hamlin would like to see more female coaches.
While Hamlin said she didn’t feel like she missed anything not having a woman to guide her, she said, “there are ways you can relate female to female.”
In Winterberg, she and Summer Britcher and Emily Sweeney, the two American female competitors, immediately fell into their old pattern of watching “Grey’s Anatomy” on Friday morning.
“We’re a family here,” said Britcher, who has reached the podium at her last three world cups and is a contender for a world championships medal.
Britcher said that because Hamlin was a team leader as an athlete, she made a smooth transition to coach.
“She’s been a great asset to the team,” Britcher said, “just having a fresh set of eyes on the track, especially from one who is so fresh out of the sport and can really take that recent knowledge and turn it into a real benefit for us.”
Hamlin critiques the athletes, male and female, on their runs. “I know the track, I’ve been here so many times,” she said, “and I know what you’re aiming for going down and what the line should look like. I’m well aware that all these guys are at the top of their game.
“There are certain things that some of the athletes on the team do better than I did, so wherever they feel they can use my expertise, I’ll give it, but I definitely don’t want to over-coach.”
Chris Mazdzer, the 2018 Olympic silver medalist in men’s singles, traveled the world with Hamlin for years.
“I really don’t believe that the second someone becomes a coach, they have to make this giant change in their attitude towards athletes,” he said. “I prefer a more lighthearted approach and that’s what Erin’s coming to the table with, and it’s really refreshing. She hasn’t changed much, and she doesn’t have to change much. She has a lot of wisdom, she’s fun. When it comes to coaching, she has that fresh perspective, so it’s been really nice having her here.”
As soon as worlds are over, they’ll go their separate ways again. Hamlin splits her time between Fargo, North Dakota, about 30 minutes from where her husband works as an elementary school teacher in Barnesville, Minnesota, and upstate New York, where they’ll spend the summer.
Hamlin gave herself a gap year, maybe two, to accept opportunities like this one to work with Team USA. She’s also done commentary on luge world cups in Calgary, Alberta, and Whistler, British Columbia, though it was in the form of voiceovers from a studio in Saratoga Springs, New York.
She figures a 9-to-5 job can wait. “While I still have a foot in the athlete world I’ll take advantage of that,” she said.
But Hamlin doesn’t view this two-week period with Team USA as a tryout. She said she is asked all the time by other coaches and people in the luge world if she wants to join the program full-time as a coach.
“If I was going to be on the road all the time,” Hamlin said, “I would have kept competing.”