COMMENTARY | Despite a history of superior performance at the Winter Olympics, highlighted by winning the most overall medals four years ago, the United States has never claimed gold in the thrilling sport of luge.
Passionate fans are now cautiously optimistic that America possesses a legitimate chance to address this deficiency during the Sochi Games.
Though men take the track first at the Sanki Sliding Center, women begin two dramatic days of luge competition on Monday, February 10, and the fastest cumulative time of four runs will determine a champion.
The traditional sledding event, included in every Olympics since 1964, requires participants to use precise steering to tame a curved course of ice with blistering speeds approaching 90 mph.
The Germans historically dominate luge, and the country grabbed gold and bronze in the women's event at Vancouver. But the American squad rightfully enters Sochi with high hopes.
Erin Hamlin and Kate Hansen both carry significant momentum into the Olympics for the United States, following stellar results at a recent World Cup event in Latvia. The 27-year-old Hamlin, a three-time Olympic luge participant, finished a respectable sixth in the overall 2013-14 standings.
Yet, it was the 21-year-old Hansen who impressively captured gold at the final tuneup for Sochi on January 25, becoming the first American to earn such a medal in international competition since 1997.
While these athletes have trained relentlessly for years, USA Luge is benefiting from a critical new partnership with Dow Chemical. This will be the first games in which the Michigan-based systems manufacturer serves as the exclusive parts provider and technical design partner for the American team.
Dow's engineers have specifically employed extensive expertise in lightweight automotive initiatives to equip USA Luge with the most aerodynamic and reliable components for the squad's sleds.
With the benefit of year-round support, Erin and Kate hope to guide these precisely designed, and now made-in-America, sleds to glory at Sochi.
I recently spoke with the American women's luge participants for The Sports Train radio show.
Here are some highlights of my chat with these enthusiastic Olympians, as they prepared to go for the gold:
How did you both get started in the sport of luge?
Erin: "USA Luge hosts clinics around the country every summer, where they put kids ages 8-14 on sleds with wheels to learn the basic concepts of steering and control. And they screen the kids to see if anyone shows potential. On a whim, I attended one of these clinics when I was 12 years old in Syracuse, N.Y. I had no preconceived idea to be a luge athlete. It was completely random. After doing it, I got picked to go into the program. From there, I was invited to Lake Placid to get on the actual track and get a taste for the sport. USA Luge then picks kids from there who show potential to go into the development program. I did that and almost 15 years later, I'm here, so I guess it was a good choice."
Kate: "The USA Luge clinic came to Long Beach, California, and I'm from right outside Los Angeles. My dad heard about this clinic, and I had grown up surfing and skateboarding, and he thought there would be a connection. So I went and tried out and went through the whole process of trying to make a team. It took a couple of years to make the development team, but since then it has been an awesome experience. I'm just grateful it worked out."
What do you think about the new sliding center at Sochi?
Erin: "In the luge, there are only 16 of 17 of these tracks that we compete on worldwide. With most places getting awarded the Games these days, even though skiing or speed skating can be held at facilities that already exist, we generally always need a new one. So we are used to having to adapt to new tracks. As far as the one in Sochi goes, it opened a few years ago, so we've spent quite a bit of time there. I think last season, as a whole, we spent 4 or 5 weeks there. But it is a new track for us and we haven't been on it as much as others. It's not an extremely difficult track, so it was pretty easy to figure out how to get down safely. Getting down fast will be the big kicker. All the little details will be important."
Can the United States take its first-ever gold in luge?
Kate: "If we're all at the top of our games for these Olympics, I think we could have some pretty good results. We're just excited to get on the Sochi track, and it's exciting because it is not necessarily a German track. The Germans are very dominant on their home tracks, so it should really even out the playing field for us. We're all just excited to show them what we got."
How do you deal with the real danger involved with your sport?
Erin: "For us sitting on the handles, yeah, sometimes you get nervous on tracks that are a little more difficult or not your favorite places to slide. You can get butterflies or be hesitant to slide, but, overall, you have confidence because most of us have been doing it for so long. It's such an experience-based sport. It sounds weird to say, but it's normal for us to be going those speeds on tracks and barely looking. And with that comfort at those speeds, it makes it a lot easier mentally to pull off the handles at the start and know that you'll be OK going down."
What plans do your family and friends have for following you in Sochi?
Kate: "My parents and my siblings will be coming to Russia. As for hometown parties, my family actually runs a Mexican restaurant, so there is going to be a pretty big fiesta on my race day. I go to school at BYU in Utah, and I've heard from friends they're also going to be throwing a big event for race day. I'm just honored so many people would be interested in what we're doing out here. It's a really exciting time, not only for us at athletes but also for our families, because they've been there through the tears, through the blood, and through everything. So it is just as exciting for them."
Following two days of singles competition, the gold medal for women's luge at the Sochi Olympics will be awarded on Tuesday, February 11.
Learn more about Kate Hansen and Erin Hamlin, USA Luge, and the partnership with Dow Chemical at USALuge.org.
Jeff Briscoe is a longtime fan of Olympic competition and a regular contributor to the Yahoo Contributor Network. He will be talking Sochi 2014 on The Sports Train radio show in Southwest Florida.
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