At 30, USA Luge's Erin Hamlin hitting her best stride
Retirement keeps getting closer. Erin Hamlin keeps getting better.
It's an unusual parallel, not often the case for athletes when they realize that they're closer to the end of their careers than the beginning. But Hamlin, the USA Luge veteran who is expected to hang up her sled next winter after the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, is an anomaly - epitomizing the notion of getting better with age.
In more than a decade of competing on the world's top luge circuit, Hamlin collected a total of one world championships medal. At this year's world meet last weekend in Austria, she won three - including her second career gold, to go alongside the one she won in Lake Placid eight years ago. And now the 2014 Olympic bronze medalist has a shot of finishing among the top three in the World Cup points chase for the first time.
Her best season ever? It's tough to argue otherwise.
''It's getting pretty up there,'' Hamlin said. ''I definitely have had big moments with the Olympics, and 2009 worlds is still a very high point for me. But oddly enough, as the years have gone by I'm not even setting really strict standards for myself of what I want to achieve in a season. I want to be consistent, be happy with my sliding ... and it's going pretty well.''
That gold medal in Lake Placid in 2009 was Hamlin's only win for what seemed like forever.
She's picked up five gold medals in the last three seasons alone - four on the World Cup circuit, and then the world championship in the sprint last weekend.
''I knew I could do well,'' Hamlin said. ''I just had to keep my cool and slide like I knew how.''
Hamlin is a small-town girl, emerging from tiny Remsen, New York. She started sliding as a 12-year-old, and not long after that her dreams of becoming a gymnast and an astronaut were quickly put on hold.
She's wildly popular among teammates and competitors, proven by the scene trackside in Austria last weekend. Hamlin was giving an interview on the medal stand, a bouquet of red and white flowers still in her hand, when she was interrupted by someone who shrieked and wrapped her in a hug.
The shrieker was German star Natalie Geisenberger, who didn't medal at worlds - and still found the time to congratulate Hamlin.
''It was crazy and everyone congratulates me constantly at the track and it's pretty insane,'' Hamlin said. ''It's kind of unreal, still, a little.''
When she leaves, there will surely be a void.
Hamlin turned 30 last fall, and her closest competitors on the U.S. roster look like they are just starting to hit their best stride. Summer Britcher, the newly crowned women's under-23 world champion, doesn't turn 23 until next month. Emily Sweeney, who has been Hamlin's roommate on the World Cup road, turns 24 next month.
Yet as Britcher and Sweeney keep getting better and finding their way to World Cup medal podiums, Hamlin seems to have found new gears herself.
''Having a competitive field on our own team, it's definitely beneficial,'' Britcher said. ''You want to beat your teammates, but at the same time, even when they beat you you're still a little happy because you want them to do well. It definitely builds us up.''
There's a few more World Cup stops left this season, a critical training week looms in South Korea - most sliders will be getting their first look at the 2018 Olympic track - and then there will be another World Cup campaign to get through in 2017-18.
And, of course, the Olympics.
She earned her interdisciplinary studies degree while sliding from Empire State College in New York, where she made more than a few fans along the way. Nearly everything written or said about Hamlin on Twitter merits a retweet from someone there, and she's thinking that it'll be time soon to put that degree to use.
So with that, her last slide - her last time on the Olympic stage - is coming.
Few around her would be surprised if Hamlin's best moment is still to come as well.
''It's taken 16, 17 years to get here,'' Hamlin said. ''It's nice to still be able to come to a race, a big race, and be able to perform.''