Erin Hamlin, the face of USA Luge, set to say goodbye

Erin Hamlin carries the flag of the United States during the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Friday, Feb. 9, 2018. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (AP) Say the name Lindsey Vonn, and skiing comes to mind. Mike Eruzione, a miracle. Shaun White, tricks and flips. Michelle Kwan, jumps and grace.

They are faces of winter sport in the United States.

And Erin Hamlin is right there in luge.

Hamlin, the longtime and unquestioned leader of the USA Luge program – not just the women’s team – is about to take her final slides. A kid on a wheeled sled when her foray into this niche sport began as a preteen, Hamlin is now a soon-to-be-married 31-year-old with 23 World Cup medals, two world championships, an Olympic bronze medal and one race left in her life.

The farewell begins Monday night at the Pyeongchang Olympics, half a world away from her tiny hometown of Remsen, New York.

”I’m kind of looking at it as we have that happy-sad mix, because you know it’s the last one,” said Eileen Hamlin, Erin’s mother. ”If we ever go again, it’ll be as a spectator and that’s a different feeling. So the general feeling is we’re just enjoying the moment. No one’s thought too much about anything past these next two days.”

It’s a four-heat competition, two on Monday, two on Tuesday. Much like her U.S. teammates Summer Britcher and Emily Sweeney, Hamlin is a legitimate medal contender.

”No matter what happens,” she said, ”I’ve had a pretty good time.”

The breakthrough for Hamlin came in 2009, when she won the world championship title on her home track in Lake Placid, New York. That ended a 99-race winning streak by the powerhouse Germans, who were then basically unbeatable.

The Germans still win most races. But they’re no longer invincible, thanks to Hamlin.

”They have been convinced that they can beat the Germans. That’s the most important thing,” said Wolfgang Harder, the longtime press officer for the International Luge Federation. ”Before Lake Placid 2009, I think they always thought the Germans were unbeatable. And then it happened. And they know, OK, it’s possible.”

She’s an anomaly in plenty of ways.

There’s rivalry everywhere one looks in sliding, often among even teammates from the same nation. Hamlin has completely avoided such drama. She’s revered by American teammates, respected by rivals around the world, proven by her getting a bearhug from German star Natalie Geisenberger when Hamlin won her second world title last season.

”I will miss Erin,” Geisenberger said. ”She’s excellent.”

Hamlin’s family has traveled all over the world to watch her slide, and when they’re not trackside they’ve all gotten up at ungodly hours and stared at their computer screens to monitor races going on in Europe or Asia. They group-chat with other USA Luge families on those mornings, either to console or congratulate. They drink either strong coffee or stronger ”luge hooch,” cheering from afar.

And she had fans from other nations as well. Ron Hamlin, Erin’s father, was walking through an airport after one race when he saw a German coach and wished him luck for the rest of the season. The German coach asked his name as they walked side by side through a terminal, and when he heard ”Hamlin” he stopped in his tracks.

”Erin,” the coach said. ”Good slider. Nice to meet you.”

And now, a new life awaits her.

She doesn’t want to be the face of USA Luge much longer after this season. That torch needs to be passed.

”I kind of hope it doesn’t last super-long because that would mean the girls that I’m leaving on the team are going to do better,” she said. ”If I’ve pushed them to achieve just as good or greater things, then I think that would be pretty cool.”

She’s getting married this summer. It’s a running joke in the sliding world that everyone retires once, then comes back after a year or two. Hamlin sounds absolute, that this is the end.

”I don’t think I’ll have any hemming and hawing,” Hamlin said. ”It’s a pretty big no-brainer for me at this point.”

Asked if she has any regrets, she needed a minute before coming up with the only one.

”I wish I took more pictures, because my memory’s not so great,” Hamlin said. ”Every year, I intend to take more and my phone’s always full. I’m too cheap to pay for a big phone size. It’s the lowest number of gigs so it fills up in a heartbeat.”

When it ends, however it ends, this much is certain: Hamlin is leaving a legacy that USA Luge will point to for generations.

”It’s definitely an honor to think that’s the situation,” said Hamlin, the flagbearer for the United States at the opening ceremony in Pyeongchang. ”There’s definitely a lot of credit that needs to be given to the people that were there when I got there, because they helped me when I first showed up. Even after I started beating people that had been there for a while, they were still very supportive and helped me get better. They helped me get here.”

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