KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — History. It’s what German lugers always seem to be making. And it’s what Erin Hamlin is chasing.
Germany’s Natalie Geisenberger closed in on what appears to be an inevitable Olympic gold medal Monday night, finishing the first two runs of the women’s luge competition in 1 minute, 39.814 seconds. That’s 0.766 seconds better than her countrywoman Tatjana Huefner, who took the title at the Vancouver Games.
Germans first and second? That’s no surprise.
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Instead, the surprise is who’s on their heels in third.
Hamlin — vying to be the first American to win a singles luge medal at the Olympics — was second after the first heat, then slipped to third at the midway point after losing about a tenth of a second to Huefner in her second trip down the Sanki Sliding Center track.
Still, a medal is very much within reach for the 2009 world champion from Remsen, N.Y.
"I’ll take it," Hamlin said. "Definitely."
Huefner’s time was 1:40.580. Hamlin’s was 1:40.632, giving her a cushion of 0.216 seconds over fourth-place Natalja Khoreva of Russia.
Barring a crash or major mistake from Geisenberger, no one will be catching her for the top spot — her lead at the midway point is the second-largest in women’s Olympic luge history.
"The first run was perfect," Geisenberger said. "The second one was a little bit worse, but good enough. I’m absolutely satisfied with both runs."
The final two runs are Tuesday night.
Hamlin was 12th at the Turin Games and 16th four years ago in Vancouver, where the start position was moved down the track after a men’s slider died in a training accident hours before those Olympics began. Hamlin never figured out the new start and her chances there ended essentially before the racing even got started.
Not this time. Training times suggested she would be in the mix, and two solid runs Tuesday might give her what she’s spent half a lifetime chasing.
"I like my consistency," Hamlin said.
Also for the U.S., Kate Hansen of La Canada, Calif., is 10th, and Summer Britcher of Glen Rock, Pa., is 15th.
Geisenberger is a protege of the German great Georg Hackl, much like Felix Loch, who won his second straight Olympic gold on Sunday night in the men’s competition. She was the second woman down the ramp in the opening heat, and if anyone needed a reminder she’s the world’s best, she opened a one-run lead of 0.465 seconds.
It meant most of her competitors were beaten before getting on the ice. Italy’s Sandra Gasparini made one small slip and finished 1.141 seconds behind Geisenberger in that first heat. She shrugged and playfully punched her helmet when the run was over, as if to say, "What else can I do?"
So the race is essentially for second, and an American actually has a shot. Three times in Olympic singles luge history, a U.S. man or woman has finished in fourth. The U.S. has four Olympic luge medals, all in doubles, two silver and two bronze.
By comparison, Germany — if combining the days when the nation was split into East and West — has 52 Olympic singles luge medals, 71 overall at the games. That’s about a couple dozen more than all other nations combined, and it’s a tally that is almost certainly going to rise when Geisenberger finishes her fourth run to complete her long-awaited coronation as the sport’s undisputed best.
"It’s a good lead," Geisenberger said, "and I don’t have to be nervous."
Geisenberger said she’s curious to know what it’ll be like to try to sleep knowing she leads at the Olympics. Hamlin had her usual large group of family and well-wishers cheering her every move Monday night, and she seems relaxed — much as she was on the way to the 2009 world title in Lake Placid, N.Y.
"I don’t think, `Oh, I want to make history’ as much as I want to get a medal," Hamlin said. "I did once before and I didn’t even think about it then, so maybe that’s the way to go. I’m just trying to set everything up, have fun, and be happy with my runs. That’s the bottom line."