Erin Hamlin (USA) wins bronze in women's single luge during the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games at Sanki Sliding Center. (Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports)
KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia - A medal for USA Luge's Erin Hamlin was more realistic in Vancouver four years ago, not here in the shadow of the stunning Caucasus Mountains.
Hamlin didn't medal during this World Cup season and conceded last week, "2010 may have been my best opportunity (to medal)."
She was wrong.
Hamlin, 27 of Remsen, N.Y., won bronze on Tuesday, becoming the first American to win an Olympic medal in singles luge, an event dominated by Germany.
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"It's surreal," Hamlin said. "I had four great runs. I came here with no expectations and this is beyond what I imagined."
Germany's Natalie Geisenberger, as expected, won gold in 3:19.768, followed by compatriot Tatjana Hufner (3:20.907), giving Germany 31 of the 42 medals awarded in the Olympics for the women's luge.
Hamlin (3:21.145) reached the podium ahead of Canada's Alex Gough, who finished third in the World Cup points standings, Germany's Anke Wischnewski, who was fourth in the World Cup standings, and three Russians who competed with high, if not unrealistic, expectations on their home track.
The story in the USA is Hamlin and her unprecedented accomplishment. After her second of four runs on Monday, Hamlin said, ""I don't necessarily think, 'Oh, I want to make history.' It's more like, 'I want to get a medal.' I'm just really trying to soak up everything up, have fun and be happy with my race."
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Happy is an understatement now.
As training progressed this week, Hamlin felt comfortable on the track, which suits her style. She is not the fastest at the start when sliders use their hands to launch themselves and then paddle out of the start. But Hamlin is a strong driver, and on the Sanki track - the longest in the world - Hamlin was able to generate speed, especially on the lower portion of the track where lugers hit speeds around 83-85 mph.
For instance, Hamlin had the 12th-best start in the third heat. But she was eighth at the first interval, fourth at the second and third at the third.
USA Luge program director Mark Grimmette had quiet optimism during Hamlin's training this week.
"Her training was pretty good all week," he said. "Erin holds back a little bit in training. It's kind of hard to gauge how she's doing but you could tell from her times she was going to be competitive for a medal. The thing about Erin is she races well in the big races. She's been placing well as season long. No medal, that's correct but we knew that had to potential to be right up there with the best."
Hamlin entered the event with minimal medal expectations. While she has had international success, she hasn't finish in the top three in a World Cup race since 2011-12, and her 2009 world championship is ages ago.
But she put herself in medal contention with the second-fastest time in the first run on Monday and was third after two heats - just the second American woman to finish in the top three after two heats in an Olympic race, joining Courtney Zablocki, who was third after two runs at the 2006 Torino Games.
She built a .355-second lead over Gough in her third heat and needed a run with minimal mistakes to claim bronze. That's exactly what she did.
"When I went into that third-to-last curve I thought to myself, 'I think I just did it,' " Hamlin said. "Luge isn't the biggest sport at home, and we've never won an individual medal. Hopefully this gives it a boost, I'm happy to pave the way to the future."
The joy today makes the Vancouver disappointment somehow worth all the struggles, the pain, the homesick trips from one European mountain town to the next during the World Cup season.
It is a major boost for USA Luge, which has worked hard to put a singles racer on the podium, conducting slider searches across the United States.
"Lots of hard work and a lot of planning over the past four years," Grimmette said. "Lots of elements had to come together. One is having a good sled. That's one important step. But what can't be understated is how hard she works and how hard the coaching staff has worked with her to help make this happen."
Over the last two years, the organization made a commitment to better technology. Germany has superior sled technology, and with four World Cup luge track tracks in a country roughly the size of Montana, the talent pool is deep.
The USA might not have the same athletes, but there's no reason it shouldn't have the technology. Norton and Dow have provided that technology. Norton produced much-improved steel blades and Dow developed better kufens, which hold the steel and are attached to the sled.
Previously, the USA bought steel from Austria, and while Germany leads in sled technology, USA Luge marketing and sponsorship director Gordy Sheer said, "The gap is closing.
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