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 women's luge - especially since the native of Remsen had claimed the World Championship title the year before in Lake Placid, where she lives while training.
But after Hamlin finished a disappointing 16th in 2010, she was left feeling that the dream of standing on the Olympic podium might never come true.
That all changed Tuesday when Hamlin slid to a bronze medal at the Sanki Sliding Center at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
Erin Hamlin of the United States holds the American flag high while looking for family members in the stands after she claimed the bronze medal in women's luge at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.
(Lake Placid News photo — Erin Hamlin)
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 women's medal in the sport for the United States. In fact, it was the U.S.'s first singles luge medal, for men or women. The U.S. has four Olympic luge medals, but all in doubles: two silver and two bronze.
Her third-place finish also marked the first medal for any American luger since the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah.
It was pretty evident after Tuesday's third run that Hamlin wasn't going to catch the eventual gold and silver medalists, Germany's 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 yesterday and earlier today," 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, it's pretty great," Hamlin added. "After winning worlds in 2009 and going into 2010, I didn't have my best season and didn't 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 wasn't until this year that things got kind of consistent again, but I still hadn't gotten on the podium, so it feels really great to have a solid race. It's 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, Canada's 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 that's 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.'
"It's definitely something I never expected, especially after Vancouver, and I thought that was kind of my best shot," Hamlin said. "It feels great. I'm 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 Hamlin's achievement. Included in the group were her parents Ron and Eileen and brothers Sean and Rian. The stands across from the track's 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.
Remsen is a village of about 500 people between Utica and Old Forge, just outside the Adirondack Park.
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 Placid's National Sports Academy, was 15th with a 3:24.143 total. There were 31 competitors in the race.
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.