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Huefner gives Germany yet another luge gold

WHISTLER, British Columbia (AP) — Wherever the start in luge, Germans usually find a way to finish first.

Tatjana Huefner added yet another layer Tuesday to her country's magnificent run of dominance in the fastest sliding sport, giving Germany its ninth women's singles luge gold in 13 Olympic competitions.

Her four-run time of 2 minutes, 46.524 seconds was 0.490 seconds better than Austria's Nina Reithmayer, while Germany's Natalie Geisenberger claimed the bronze. Combined with Felix Loch's win in the men's event, Huefner gave Germany its sixth sweep of singles luge Olympic golds — something no other nation has done even once.

Huefner won bronze at Turin in 2006. She slapped the ice when this one was over, then got almost tackled by Geisenberger, who rushed over to deliver a massive hug before Huefner wrapped herself in the German flag.

The talk of this women's luge competition was the start ramp, racers going off from the novice position at the Whistler track following the death of a Georgian men's racer in a training wreck. The starts were moved to try and minimize speed, but a great many sliders — including 2009 women's world champion Erin Hamlin of Remsen, N.Y. — found the switch incredibly frustrating.

Huefner wasn't thrilled by it, either.

She just handled it better than everyone else.

"A winner is a winner, and the top people are still doing well," said Hamlin, who finished a stunning 16th, by far her worst showing this season. "So you can't really take anything away from them."

For the first time in the last three Olympics, it wasn't a 1-2-3 German sweep. Still, their dominance remains unquestioned — of the 39 Olympic medals awarded in women's singles, 26 have gone to Germans.

The start used was just a few meters away from what's Curve 6 in Whistler, a sharp banker to the left that demanded precision off that beginning ramp. It's so severe that Hamlin boldly predicted before the competition that the start would make or break the race.

Turns out, her race broke.

Her Olympics of great expectation became a games to quickly forget.

"It is a bummer, just because we prepared for so long for a whole different race," Hamlin said.

And the American camp was miffed, to put it mildly: USA Luge, in a newsletter it e-mailed to followers before Tuesday's final two heats, headlined its top story "Lower start turns women's Olympic luge race into a crap shoot."

They weren't alone in that thinking.

"This was a real race," said Canada's Meaghan Simister, "but not a real start."

Entering these Olympics, there's been 10 World Cup races since Hamlin won the world title in Lake Placid.

Her worst finish in those 10 events? Ninth.

With three bronze showings in the last five World Cup races this season, plus that world title, her medal hopes were legit.

In Whistler, slip-slidin' away they went.

"When you train for a year and a half and something gets totally turned upside down, it's tough," said Hamlin, whose spirits were buoyed by the large gallery of flag-waving, body-painted family and friends who made the 3,000-mile trek to Whistler. "It's a little bit hard to swallow at some points, but it's over with. Hopefully when I come back here to race it will be different."

Even with the lower speed, there was one scary moment Tuesday when Slovakia's Jana Sisajova crashed in her final run. Watching on TV monitors, Canada's Alex Gough and Italy's Sandra Gasparini immediately gasped and covered their mouths at the sight.

Sisajova was able to walk away.

Finishes not withstanding, the U.S. seemed to try and enjoy yet another medal-free Olympics — no American singles luger has ever reached the podium.

Julia Clukey of Augusta, Maine was 17th. And after finishing 22nd, Olympic rookie Megan Sweeney of Suffield, Conn. pumped her fists at the finish as her sled was skidding to a stop, then stood on the finish deck blowing kisses to the crowd, smile never leaving her red-cheeked face for several minutes. In turn, they serenaded her with "Happy Birthday" — she turns 23 Wednesday.

Sweeney has a party on Wednesday. Another German gold celebration might still be going then.

Huefner entered Tuesday's final two runs leading Reithmayer by 0.05 seconds, meaning the gold was still undecided.

Not for long, it wasn't.

First down the ramp for the third heat Tuesday, Huefner more than quintupled her lead, moving 0.268 seconds clear of Reithmayer. Doesn't sound like much, but in luge, that sort of margin meant it was over. All Huefner needed to do in her final heat was simply stay aboard her sled and avoid major problems.

She did that with ease.

"Her results speak for themselves," Hamlin said. "She's just really good."

Huefner's favorite offseason hobby is climbing.

And after crossing the finish line, she had something to climb — the medal podium.

Germany is golden again.

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