Why lugers are not adrenaline junkies
The U.S. luge team is a fun bunch, full of personalities, rich in talent. It must be a weird thing to represent your country at the highest level of your sport, yet walk around the country anonymously, only to be recognized as stars in Germany, the Netherlands, Italy and the other parts of Europe where luge is a big-time sport.
Juergen Schwarz/AFP/Getty ImagesErin Hamlin snapped Germany's 99-match winning streak at last year's world championships.
Only during an Olympic year does your country take you out of the attic, dusting you off and putting you back in a prominent place on the mantel. But that is the life. Each lives with it differently.
In the meantime, American lugers laugh at the perceptions of the sport. The first thing, whether it comes from veterans like Tony Benshoof and Mark Grimmette or a rising star like Erin Hamlin, is they are not adrenaline junkies, a term each is familiar with and accepts somewhat derogatorily. Yes, they fly down a frozen sheet of ice, back-flat, feet-first at speeds up to 90 mph, but that doesn't mean they aren't technicians. They leave the "need for speed" to what they consider to be their less-technical counterparts on the skeleton team, the luge cousin in which participants travel stomach-down, head-first on a sled with no brakes. If you want to step on the thin ice of insult, just call the two disciplines the same (I made sure I didn't).
In addition to dealing with what we'll call an "international incident" -- the United States team was magnanimous in allowing Team Canada to practice liberally on its track for the 2002 Salt Lake City Games; the Canadians, sensing a considerable advantage with the fast, intimidating track in Whistler, British Columbia, have been stingy in reciprocating the favor -- USA Luge is fighting the usual powerhouses.
If you're taking notes (this is my way of saying "take notes") on the women's side, the 23-year-old Hamlin has emerged as a special competitor. During the six World Cup events leading up to Vancouver, the American, like the rest of the world, has been chasing Germany.
She may be peaking at the right time. After finishing seventh and ninth in the first two Cup events in Calgary, Alberta, and Igls, Austria, Hamlin appears to be sliding at her best. Each of her next three events produced a top-five finish, including a bronze last month (one of her runs produced a first-place finish) in Lillehammer, Norway. Hamlin won another bronze in Winterberg, Germany, on Jan. 10.
"My sliding right now is really good. I've been on tracks I haven't always felt comfortable on, but coming in this season, things have gone really well," Hamlin said. "Last week was very unexpected, especially on a German track. It hadn't always been my strongest. Things have been really consistent, which is something that over the years I really always worked on getting to that point. Right now, I feel like I'm there."
Though the Germans are clearly the best sliders in the world -- Tatjana Hufner, Natalie Geisenberger and Anke Wischnewski are ranked first, second and third, respectively -- it was Hamlin, a first time Olympian at the 2006 Torino Games, who won gold last year at the world championships in Lake Placid, N.Y., snapping the Germans' 99-match winning streak.
"As things get closer to the Games, I feel like everything is building in a good direction and I hope that continues," she said. "But being in the top five regularly, in the top 10, and getting on the podium a couple of times is somewhere I'm not completely really used to being yet, but it's definitely not a bad place to be."