KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia Erin Hamlin expected an Olympic medal four years ago, and came up empty.
This time around, she expected nothing. Lowering expectations, it turns out, raised her game.
“Who knew?” she said.
Hamlin won the bronze medal in women’s luge Tuesday night at the Sochi Olympics, touching off a wild celebration among family and friends in the Russian mountains and a raucous party home in Remsen, Oneida County. It’s a place where hundreds of people — about half the town, it would appear — huddled around televisions streaming the online feed of her history-making run down the track at the Sanki Sliding Center.
“This time, I was like, ‘You know what? I won worlds before, I’ve had podium [finishes] and it would be amazing to get on, but if I have four solid runs — which until today I never had in the Olympics — I would be happy with it,’ ” Hamlin said.
“I just really wanted to enjoy the experience and really take it all in,” Hamlin said. “I don’t know if I’ll be back again, so it’s great to be able to do that. I really came in with no expectations.”
Neither, it would be fair to say, did USA Luge. Four times in the past, USA Luge has sent a doubles teams to the Olympic podium. But no American had ever won an Olympic singles medal in the sport. Not until Hamlin delivered her bronze on Tuesday.
“It’s nice to break the streak,” said Tony Benshoof, one of three U.S. lugers to finish fourth in a previous Olympics, until now the best showing for an American singles competitor. “I’ve always known that Erin could get on the podium. It just hadn’t happened yet.”
At the Turin Games as a wide-eyed teen, Hamlin finished 12th. Four years later in Vancouver, a year removed from winning the world championship, she was 16th after never figuring out how to deal with the tricky start ramp sliders were forced to use following the death of a men’s competitor.
Now, she’s an Olympic medalist. And yes, to the Hamlin clan, third place at the Olympics seemed like a whole lot bigger victory than winning the world title.
“For her, yes, it is,” said Eileen Hamlin, her mother.
When Hamlin won the world title the big perk was getting an ice cream sundae named in her honor. It’s still a big seller in Remsen, where she ran track and played soccer and grew up being “a wimp,” she said, whenever her parents wanted her to try something adventurous or daring.
Nowadays, she jumps on a sled and goes 85 mph down a hill. Wimp no more.
And the perks this time? Who knows. She’s getting picked up by the U.S. Olympic Committee this morning for a media tour, and it’ll last a good while.
“It’s going to take a little while to sink in,” Hamlin said. “I was the first American woman to win at worlds, so to be able to do this, I’m hopefully paving the way for future generations of female lugers in the U.S.”
Germany’s Natalie Geisenberger won the race in dominant style, posting a four-run time of 3 minutes, 19.768 seconds. Tatjana Huefner was second, 1.139 seconds off the pace. Hamlin was another 0.236 seconds back.
Central New York was watching. “Go Erin” banners were seen in Remsen and at least two other neighboring towns. At least 100 kids — roughly half the school — crammed into the library to watch her race.
At the Saranac Brewery in nearby Utica, beers were flowing by 9:30 a.m. at an Olympic watch party.
“Our area is so unique,” said Meghan Fraser, the brewery’s marketing and public relations coordinator. “Not a lot of people know about us and when they do come here, they have a wonderful experience and know it’s a great place to live. We don’t get a lot of praise and Erin has brought so much light to our community. She’s a special part of this community and gives people a reason to know who we are and what we’re all about.”
Thing is, in Remsen, they wouldn’t have cared if she finished last. But Hamlin wanted this desperately, more than she ever acknowledged publicly. When that race four years ago was over, Hamlin turned to her mother and said Sochi was her new goal.
“I don’t want to go out like this,” Hamlin said then.
The payoff was bronze.
And it was good as gold.