US must get past disappointing finish

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Somewhere in the next few weeks and months, the American women's luge team will be able to replace the bitter, awkward experience of Vancouver and replace it with the enthusiasm of newer challenges: championships, World Cups and, eventually, Sochi in 2014. But on Tuesday, when the luge final ended, recrimination was rightfully dominating their thoughts, the wound too raw.

The luge portion of the 2010 Olympics is over, predictable in that the German dominance of the sport continued with gold for Tatjana Huefner and bronze for Natalie Geisenberger, but unpredictable in the bitterly disappointing closure for the Americans.

Erin Hamlin -- who had snapped the German's 99-match win streak in 2009, was the hottest American slider entering the Games and was America's best chance to medal in the event -- finished a distant 16th and never truly contended after a difficult first run. Hamlin also represented America's best finish. Julia Clukey finished 17th, and Megan Sweeney, whose pink-clad entourage of family and friends stole the crowd show, finished 22nd in her first Olympic appearance.

"It's incredible. It's been a very long road," Sweeney said. "It's been a very long process. I was a bit discombobulated going into this race, but once I got my sled, I know I can celebrate because I'm here. I'm here."

After two runs that left her in 15th place behind Huefner, Hamlin needed help from her competitors in the form of slow times and the greatest run of her life on the second day of the competition. She got neither, and the top three from the end of the first run Monday all won medals.

Huefner won it with a four-run combined time of 2:46.524 seconds. Geisenberger finished at 2:47.014 seconds, and Nina Reithmayer of Austria captured the silver medal at 2:47.101 seconds. By contrast, Hamlin finished her four runs at 2:49.108 seconds and did not have a single run under 42 seconds, which turned out to be key.

"What's done is done. You can't change it, so there's no reason to dwell, I guess," Hamlin said afterward. "Frustrating is a good term. Trackwise, from Curve 7 down was pretty good today, pretty right on, but that first curve just kicked me in the butt."

The Americans were in a decidedly awkward position. The shadow of Nodar Kumaritashvili, the Georgian slider who was killed Friday when he slid off of the track and hit an unpadded pole hours before the opening ceremonies, forced unpopular changes in the track as Olympic officials decided to move the start of the women's race 250 meters to the junior start to reduce speed and, ostensibly, increase safety. It was an alteration -- the track now began at Curve 6 -- from which the Americans would never recover.

But complaining about it would have looked small (the Germans and Austrians and Canadians all had to make the same adjustment) and horribly insensitive, as if a tragic death and taking measures to ensure safety was not as important as their Olympic chances.

The change proved to be Hamlin's undoing. On two of her three runs, she wobbled out of her opening, losing critical time. On Wednesday's third run, she fishtailed out of the gate, swishing awkwardly. On the fourth, Hamlin seemed to breathe a sigh of relief that it was all over.

Maybe being unable to make the adjustment was the biggest example of the distance between the American and German programs. Earlier in the week, Geisenberger called the once-vaunted Whistler track a "children's start" and backed it up -- Huefner and Reithmayer, too -- by being totally unconcerned about a start that completely vexed the Americans. Or maybe the runs of Huefner, Geisenberger and Austria's Reithmayer were proof of just how good they are. But there is no question the American team was not the same in these two championship days.

"People ask how I feel, and I know exactly why, so I'm not going to argue with the fact that it was done," Hamlin said. "I totally understand the rationale of the decision, but that doesn't make it easier for me to swallow.

"I think, for a while, it will be tough because I had been riding such a good wave going into it, but at the same time, it's motivation to come back strong the next four years," she said. "I was planning on it before, and now for sure I'm going to be here in four years."

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.