KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia Heading into Vancouver four years ago, Erin Hamlin thought those games provided her the best opportunity of winning an Olympic medal in womens luge especially since the native of Remsen had claimed the World Championship title the year before in Lake Placid.
But after Hamlin finished a disappointing 16th there, she was left feeling that the dream of standing on the Olympic podium might never come true.
That all changed Tuesday at the 2014 Sochi Olympics when Hamlin slid to a bronze medal at the Sanki Sliding Center.
Hamlin stood in second place after the first of two runs on Monday, and then put down the third-fastest runs in the next three heats to claim the first womens medal in the sport for the United States. Her third-place finish also marked the first medal for any American luger since the the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah.
It was pretty evident after Tuesdays third run that Hamlin wasnt going to catch the eventual gold and silver medalists, Germanys Natalie Geisenberger and Tatjana Huefner. But Hamlin had also built up a big enough cushion over the next position that all it would take was one more good run, just like all the others she had put down in training and in the race.
I knew I had some time in the bank going into my fourth run, so I just wanted to have a clean run and do what I had been doing (Monday) and earlier (Tuesday), Hamlin said. When I crossed the line with a good run I kind of knew that I had already kept my spot, so I was pumped instantly.
Honestly, its pretty great, Hamlin added. After winning worlds in 2009 and going into 2010, I didnt have my best season and didnt quite have an Olympics that I thought I would have had. So from then until now, I definitely had some seasons where I struggled and had to come back. It wasnt until this year that things got kind of consistent again, but I still hadnt gotten on the podium, so it feels really great to have a solid race. Its been a while.
Hamlin finished with a four-run combined time of 3 minutes, 21.145 seconds. Geisenberger had the fastest runs in all four heats and won with a combined time of 3:19.768, which was 1.139 seconds faster than her teammate Huefner, who was the defending Olympic champion. Huefner claimed the silver with a 3:20.907 total. Hamlin topped the fourth-place finisher, Canadas Alex Gough, by nearly a half-second. Kimberley McRae of Canada rounded out the top five.
Hamlin said she started to feel that this Olympics might turn out the way she wanted as soon as training started, in part because the temperatures were cold enough to help keep the ice hard.
To put four runs down on a track thats new for everybody and really feel comfortable and go fast - it was awesome, Hamlin said. When we got on the ice this week, I got comfortable really fast. My lines were dialed in day one, so it was nice to focus on relaxing and having fun instead of fighting the track. When I got really comfortable right away and it was colder and conditions were really good, I kind of started thinking, Huh, this could go better than I anticipated.
Its definitely something I never expected, especially after Vancouver, and I thought that was kind of my best shot, Hamlin said. It feels great. Im really excited to bring this medal home for the USA.
A big crowd of supporters, including family members who made the trip to Russia and USA Luge teammates, were on hand to witness Hamlins achievement. Included in the group were her parents Ron and Eileen and brothers Sean and Rian. The stands across from the tracks finish deck were packed with a raucous group of international fans, and when Hamlin slid up the finish ramp on her last run, the section decked out with red, white and blue erupted when they knew she at least clinched third place as the third-to-last slider to head down what is the longest track in the world.
I could hear them as soon as I crossed the finish line, Hamlin said.
Hours after the race, Hamlin sent a tweet out that said: 140 characters isnt nearly enough. I love you all. This is amazing!!!!!!!!
First-time Olympians Kate Hansen and Summer Britcher were also in the race for the U.S. Hansen finished 10th with a 3:22.667 combined time, and Britcher, who attended high school at Lake Placids National Sports Academy, was 15th with a 3:24.143 total. There were 31 competitors in the race.
Maybe it was fitting that Geisenberger, Huefner and Hamlin were the three who found their way to the top. Since 2007, in the years final race either the world championships or the Olympics one of those three women were crowned champion. This marked the first time in Olympic womens luge history that three world champions stood side by side on the podium.
Erin is such a great girl, Geisenberger said. Shes always friendly, always smiling, always saying hello. Its very cool and for the USA, its important to have success in luge after so many difficult years. Im happy for her.
Geisenberger turned 26 last week, already was a world champion and World Cup champion, and she now has an Olympic title after taking the bronze in Vancouver. Much like Felix Loch, the mens two-time Olympic champion and a fellow protege of all-time great Georg Hackl, her run of dominance might just be getting started.
How dominant was Geisenberger at the Sochi Olympics? Consider: The victory margins posted by the last four Olympic womens winners, combined, was 0.949 seconds. Geisenbergers lead after three runs in Sochi was 1.049 seconds. And she didnt take her foot off the gas for the final run, either.
Hamlin will have a second shot at winning a medal in the Sochi games when she is expected to compete in the team relay, which is a brand-new event in the Winter Olympics. That race takes place on Thursday.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.