KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia ― Halfway through Tuesday night's final run in the single luge, Erin Hamlin was poised to end the United States' 50-year medal drought. Three solid runs had delivered her to a defining moment: All Hamlin needed was one more respectable slide, and half a century of frustration in the event would come to an end. Anticipation built. The stands swayed, and the clanging sounds of bells cascaded onto the track below.
And then everything stopped.
In an unexpected pause, with 15 sliders left to go in the final run, workers scurried down the course. In their hands, brooms swiped away ice shavings. Five minutes became 10. Ten minutes became 15. Fifteen minutes became 20. Hamlin ate a banana. She drank water. Her glove-tight suit grew tighter. Her parents, Eilleen and Ronald, shuffled around in the stands and chatted up anyone to keep from going crazy.
"It was hell," Eilleen said later with a smile.
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You wait a lifetime for a moment, and your country waits 50 years ― asking for another 20 minutes is pushing it.
But 20 minutes of purgatory only delayed what started to seem inevitable over the past few days. Hamlin was dialed in, and, for the first time ever, an American would stand on the podium in the singles luge. After sputtering to a 16th-place finish in the Vancouver Games in 2010 ― and not winning a single race in luge this season ― all the pieces began to fall into place in Sochi. The equipment felt good. She found the rhythm of the track. When practice concluded, she felt as if she still had something left in the tank.
And when the intermission had concluded, Hamlin did what nobody in the U.S. luge program had ever done ― she held off Canadian Alex Gough and captured bronze. She stood alongside Natalie Geisenberger (gold) and Tatjana Huefner (silver) ― two Germans whose country has medaled an astonishing 54 times since the luge singles became an Olympic sport in 1964.
Maybe it wasn't the top of the podium. But when you do something that has never been done before, it sure feels like it.
"Remsen [New York] is probably pretty shut down," Hamlin said later of her hometown, whose 500 or so residents were all likely invested in this moment. "I haven't turned on my phone in 24 hours, so I imagine that's probably going to blow up pretty huge."
That was the word of the night for Hamlin ― huge. It was fitting for this moment, and everyone knew it. For the luge program, this was a Super Bowl victory, or a perfect game in baseball. It was elusive, and as it grew closer it seemed only to loom larger. So much so that some of her teammates tried not to focus on the gravity of it, lest they screw it up.
"I didn't want to think about it, because I didn't want to send bad vibes to it," said teammate Kate Hansen, who finished a respectable 10th. "It will be such a boost for us. That just shows that everything we're doing is obviously working.
"Usually there's a little bit of jealousy going on, but, honestly, I'm just so pumped for her."
One program's elation can't always be understood by everyone. The German press spent the post-race news conference hammering Huefner about whether she had a rift with her coach and planned to retire. These are the problems when you've won so many luge medals that capturing a bronze is like finding a dollar under a couch cushion.
And the Canadians … well, it was a rough beat. So much so that the team's press attache was overheard afterward saying that Gough was taking the loss particularly hard.
"Especially knowing who she lost to," the attache said.
"The American?" one press member asked.
Maybe the exchange sounded worse than it was intended. After all, Hamlin certainly didn't come into the event as any kind of medal favorite. She finished 12th in the Turin Games in 2006. Course changes scuttled what she thought were her best chances at a medal in Vancouver in 2010. And while she won gold at the world championships in 2009 and six bronzes on the World Cup circuit, there were many other favorites to choose. At 27, Hamlin was on the downslope of her career. With the United States having never won an Olympic medal in the event, history was against Hamlin.
But every improbable win has elements that others can't see. When Hamlin washed out of the Vancouver Games, she waited about a month before deciding she had to make the Sochi Games. She had to be here. She didn't want to go out as a 16th-place Olympian.
"I knew that's not how I wanted my legacy to end," Hamlin said.
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So the kid from the tiny hometown, in the sport that rarely attracts the spotlight in her country, and whose father Ronald said she "didn't like roller coasters, didn't like Alpine slides" as a child, decided to change her legacy and begin a new one for her sport in America.
Eilleen best summed up the moment when she recounted the emotion of seeing her daughter cross the finish line and seize a medal. It was a moment shared by a family and a luge program.
"Utter relief and exhilaration," Eilleen said. "She's worked so hard for so long."
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