LAKE PLACID, N.Y. - Moments of clarity usually don’t occur at 90 miles per hour while traveling down icy chutes. Yet it was exactly at that time, as her luge race was concluding at the Vancouver Olympic Winter Games four years ago, that Erin Hamlin made her decision.
“I was on the track in the final run and I’m thinking, ‘This is not how I’m going out,’” she said, on her way to a 16th place finish. Disappointing, but with a back story.
Entering Vancouver in 2010, Hamlin was the defending world champion. In the World Cup races prior to those Games the Remsen, N.Y., racer landed on the World Cup podium three times in a season that saw her finish fourth in the tour standings. She was considered someone who could threaten the German juggernaut on the Whistler track.
Then reality struck. The death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili caused the International Luge Federation to lower the start heights of all three events in an attempt to slow the course. It doomed Hamlin who felt more comfortable at the higher speeds from the normal women’s start.
So as her race was ending at Whistler, in a sport where looking ahead just a few curves is a big challenge, Hamlin was looking ahead four years.
“Coming into Sochi there were no expectations on me,” said the 27 year old. “This was my third Games and I decided to just enjoy the experience. Just go out there and do my best.
“When training started I saw that I had a lot of speed. My times were really good and competitive, and I felt like I had more in reserve.”
By now we know that was good enough for an Olympic bronze medal. But in the process, there was more to the story:
- 50 years after luge made its Olympic debut, Hamlin’s achievement was the first singles luge medal in American history
- Sitting in second place after the first of four heats was a high-water mark in team history for Olympic singles racing
- Hamlin was the first U.S. woman to ever collect an Olympic medal.
Since making history, Hamlin has been busy satisfying a whirlwind of media and sponsor commitments, not to mention parades in Remsen, Lake Placid and other locations that have followed her since she started her career in 1999 at the age of 12.
One of those in her support team is a quiet USA Luge assistant coach, who ironically, defected from the former Soviet Union in 1992. Hamlin, unselfish to a fault, made it a point to recognize Klim Gatker for his influence on her career by honoring him with the Order of Ikkos medal, named after the Ancient Greek coach of the same name.
“Having been my coach since I was a junior, and really making it a point to make sure I was doing what I needed and my sled was running okay, Klim is one of the biggest factors in my success,” she said. “Everything from pep talks to double and triple-checking things on my sled, he has always been there, even when not physically present, to ensure I can solely focus on sliding.
“It was simply his efforts of trying to make me better. Focusing on what I can control, doing my own thing, and not worrying about outside factors really came to a point at the Games. And because he has taught me that over the years, I was able to have a carefree, nerve-free, relaxed race and fully enjoy every second of it. Although many people, on and off the track, have contributed to my career, Klim has absolutely been the biggest constant.”
The Sochi Winter Games capped a season that saw USA Luge achieve five World Cup medals, the most since Hamlin’s three bronze in 2009-2010. The seeds of this year’s success were planted in the second half of the 2012-2013 campaign. That winter saw Chris Mazdzer finish sixth in the World Championships at Whistler. He backed that with a fifth place effort in the Lake Placid World Cup, with Taylor Morris tied for seventh and Joe Mortensen 11th.
But the season highlight was provided by Julia Clukey, who stormed to a World Cup silver medal in Lake Placid, her career best, on a day when there were four American women in the top nine. Clukey then raced the lead leg in the team relay, sending her foursome to another silver medal. The accomplishment included Mazdzer and the doubles team of Matt Mortensen and Preston Griffall.
Using that as a starting point for the Olympic season, Kate Hansen, Tucker West, Christian Niccum and Jayson Terdiman picked up a World Cup silver medal in the Winterberg, Germany team relay.
It was during this time that USA Luge’s technological advancements with their sleds and steel running surfaces became more evident. The combination of support from Norton / Saint-Gobain, in restructuring the steel recipe for the team’s runners as well as supplying the accompanying abrasive materials, and Dow, providing advanced sled components, pushed the team that much faster, enabling them to achieve podium finishes.
When the World Cup tour relocated to North America, Mazdzer collected consecutive World Cup silvers at Whistler and Park City, Utah. The two-time Olympian teamed with Hansen, Mortensen and Griffall for another silver medal in the team relay in Park City.
The fifth medal occurred in the World Cup final when Hansen, on a rocket-fast course in Sigulda, Latvia, came from second place in the final heat to take a gold medal. It was the first such singles achievement for USA Luge since Cameron Myler’s win, also at Sigulda, in November 1997.
With a foundation now in place, the question remains: what will occur between now and Korea in 2018? It is anticipated that most of the 2014 Olympic team will return, along with Clukey, junior world champion Emily Sweeney, the improving Morris and determined Joe Mortensen.
Doubles is where change looks to be imminent as Griffall and Niccum appear ready to end their respective careers. In anticipation of that scenario, Mortensen and Terdiman have already started training and racing as a unit. In the Norton spring seeding series in Lake Placid last weekend, the new duo split a pair of races with Jake Hyrns and Andrew Sherk, who were in the 2014 Olympic mix.
The entire squad will train all summer and hit the ice in Lake Placid in October.
But for now, after a long, stressful, action-packed winter, it’s time to rest, relax and unplug. The story will be continued this summer and fall.