Chris Mazdzer’s silver-medal performance was the signature achievement for USA Luge in Pyeongchang, but no event better exemplified the American effort in this strangest and fastest of sports than the team relay. The Americans have enviable depth in the men’s, women’s and doubles disciplines, with a team-wide balance of seasoned champions and younger sliders just entering their primes. Justin Krewson and Andrew Sherk finished eighth in their first Olympic Games; Tucker West is a three-time World Cup gold medalist at just 22; American luge icon Erin Hamlin won a breakthrough bronze medal four years ago in Sochi—and none of them were chosen for the U.S. relay team.
Hamlin, whose decorated luge career came to an end in Pyeongchang, was a surprising omission from that squad given her sixth place finish in singles. (A representative from USA Luge said it was the coaches’ discretion.) The spot instead went to Summer Britcher, who set a track record on Pyeongchang’s difficult course two days earlier. Still, the 31-year-old Hamlin’s fingerprints were all over the team that raced on Thursday night.
Britcher reveres Hamlin, as all U.S. lugers do. It’s more notable that Britcher is starting to post Hamlin-esque results on the World Cup circuit after having won titles at North American and European tracks. The 23-year-old finished third overall in the 2017-18 season and is a natural successor to Hamlin on the women’s side. Mazdzer, who had never before finished in the Top 10 at an Olympics, virtually mirrored Hamlin in winning a late-career medal after prolonged disappointment. Hamlin’s 16th-place finish at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, one year after winning the World Championships, left her “completely devastated,” she told reporters in Pyeongchang. Both veterans persevered and have helped shape the ascendant class of racers that will become the next leaders of USA Luge.
Hamlin has always been about the team. When I talked to her before the 2015-16 season, her goal was to win a World Cup race—she’d won a World Championship and an Olympic medal, but had never claimed gold during the regular season. She was thrilled when she finally did, later than year in Lake Placid, but she appeared equally as happy for the others who joined her on the podium, Britcher and fellow American Emily Sweeney.
“Now I know when I retire in two years,” Hamlin told reporters that day, “the team is in good hands.”
Hamlin checked a box with her long-overdue World Cup win, but she was always at her best in the biggest races. She announced herself at the 2009 World Championships by ending the Germans’ 99-race winning streak in top-level races. Her bronze medal in 2014 was the first singles medal ever won by an American luger. In 2016, the first live broadcast of a World Cup luge race on network television in the U.S. took place in Park City. Hamlin won gold.
At the 2017 World Championships in Innsbruck, Hamlin finished second overall in the traditional, two-run race, and also won the sprint competition—a one-run event that times sliders after they’ve started and covered 100 meters on the track. It was never Hamlin’s favorite format, given the outsized impact it had on the overall standings, but it didn’t matter. Hamlin’s talent was undeniable.
For all that Hamlin accomplished in luge, she never received more attention than in Pyeongchang, where she was the flag-bearer for the United States in the Opening Ceremony. You could call it a lifetime achievement award, except that Hamlin was still a medal contender. So of course was Shani Davis, the speedskater who, like Hamlin, received four votes from the eight U.S. winter sports federations. A coin flip gave Hamlin the honor, which Davis derided on social media. He skipped the Opening Ceremony; Hamlin, after fielding questions about Davis with grace and humility, was out in front, a position she knows well.
A few days later, Hamlin’s strength would be tested again. With the final run of her career at hand, Hamlin was in fifth place when Sweeney crashed in horrific fashion. Britcher, who had clawed back into eighth place before her final run, was clearly affected by the accident and careened down the course to a 19th-place finish. A pall hung over the Alpensia Sliding Centre. No one would have blamed Hamlin if she succumbed to the circumstances.
“I was definitely concerned,” she told NBC’s Lewis Johnson after the race. “I saw it and it was definitely not a good crash. I was waiting to see her get up, and then I did, and so I felt better about that. But obviously it definitely is in my mind.”
Hamlin’s sixth-place finish wasn’t worthy of a medal and surely wasn’t what she was hoping for from her farewell ride. But it was a remarkable show of mettle, and a bit of stabilizing strength at a moment when USA Luge was at its most vulnerable. “Experience can kind of get you—I don’t want to say immune to those things, but it’s easier to block stuff out,” Hamlin said after the run. “I’ve been in situations like that before, so I’ve been able to kind of tune stuff out and focus on what I need to do.”
Hamlin has been focusing for nearly 20 years on races that come down to thousandths of a second. Now that she’s retired, it stands to reason that things should slow down at least for a while. She has said that she may return to luge, through coaching—“there are very few female coaches, so I’d like to get involved”—and stay connected to sports “before my whole sports experience and sports influence has worn off.”
Hamlin leaves this sport on her own terms, and leaves her country with a luge program that’s in better shape than it’s ever been. And after the team relay, her compatriots might be more motivated than ever. When Matt Mortensen and Jayson Terdiman struck the touchpad .002 before Italy’s doubles team did, it put the Americans in the lead with three teams to go. Unfortunately, those teams were Canada (which had its best-ever Olympic showing in luge), Austria (which included the men’s gold medalist) and the Germany juggernaut (which included the women’s and doubles gold medalists).
Nine sleds went down, and none of those nine made a mistake critical enough to keep the Americans on the podium. It was a crushing sequence for Mazdzer, Britcher, Mortensen and Terdiman, who went from ecstasy to heartbreak in the span of about 10 minutes. And that was a wrap for luge at these Olympic Games, and the career of one of its greatest champions. The end tends to sneak up on you in a sport this fast, but both Hamlin and fans of this misunderstood sport at least got one last great ride.