Huefner gives Germany another gold, US struggles

WHISTLER, British Columbia (AP) — Erin Hamlin got off her sled for the final time this season, waved to the cameras and then quickly made her way off the ice.

Her Olympics of great expectations couldn't have ended fast enough.

"It is a bummer," said Hamlin, the 2009 world champion.

Bummer. That pretty much sums it up for the U.S. women's luge team, still waiting for that first Olympic medal.

Germany's Tatjana Huefner gave her nation its ninth women's gold in 13 Olympic competitions, securing the title Tuesday by finishing the four-run event in 2 minutes, 46.524 seconds — 0.490 seconds better than Austrian silver medalist Nina Reithmayer. Germany's Natalie Geisenberger took the bronze.

The last U.S. chance for a luge medal at the Vancouver Games is Wednesday, when five-time Olympian Mark Grimmette and four-time Olympian Brian Martin lead the United States into the doubles luge competition.

Germany 26, Everybody Else 13. That's the scoreboard now when it comes to medals awarded all-time in women's Olympic luge competition. At Whistler, Germany's Felix Loch and David Moeller took gold and silver when the men's title was decided Sunday.

"We are the best sliders in the world at the moment," Geisenberger said.

A year ago, that title was held by Hamlin. On Tuesday she wound up 16th, never able to solve a tricky start that was lower on the track than first planned — a reconfiguration made after the tragic death of a Georgian men's slider in a training crash.

Julia Clukey of Augusta, Maine was 17th, while Megan Sweeney of Suffield, Conn., was 22nd.

"These results don't represent us as a team," Clukey said.

The altered start 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.

"We prepared for so long for a whole different race," she 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."

With three bronze showings in the last five World Cup races this season, plus the 2009 world title, Hamlin's medal hopes were legit.

"When you train for a year and a half and something gets totally turned upside down, it's tough," she said.

Still, her spirits were buoyed by the large gallery of flag-waving, body-painted family and friends who made the 3,000-mile trek to Whistler.

Race officials said the lower start was ordered to help athletes deal with the emotional shock of having a fellow competitor die in a crash.

Still, Clukey wondered why sliders apparently had no voice in that discussion.

"I know it was a tragedy but I wish they would have consulted the athletes," Clukey said.

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 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.

When her race was done, Sweeney 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, a smile never leaving her red-cheeked face for several minutes. In turn, they serenaded her with "Happy Birthday" — she turns 23 Wednesday.

"To have that support," Sweeney said, "it's incredible."

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

"I wanted to win here," Huefner said, "and I'm very happy that the dream came true."