- Olympian Erin Hamlin strives to leave a much greater impression on luge than just her participation in the winter games.
Jill Segger remembers the first thing out of her son Duncan’s mouth once the doctors told him he had to go through chemo: “Will I still be able to luge?”
Just as clear in her mind is the doctors' reply: “Umm, guess we’ll have to talk about it.”
The then 13-year-old Duncan had just gotten home to Lake Placid from a luge camp in November of 2014 when a lump on his neck came to the family’s attention. After numerous doctor visits, the official diagnosis came just after New Years Day 2015. Duncan had Hodgkin's Lymphoma.
“We kind of thought everything was going to fall apart at that point,” Jill said.
But she put a smile on her face and said it would be OK to put Duncan at ease. Duncan did some research because he didn’t know what Hodgkin's Lymphoma was originally. Though he says he was scared, his focus was on luge.
“Really my attitude was what do I need to do to get through this and continue to luge and ... compete,” he said.
Doctors worked around Duncan’s training schedule and created breaks for times he needed to travel for luge.
In order to slide, Duncan opted to not have a PICC (Peripherally Inserted Central Catheter) put in—a device that can make for a more comfortable way to receive chemotherapy treatment. But as long as he felt good, Duncan could luge.
The decision wasn’t taken lightly and Jill kept wondering at first if she made a mistake given his health and the risk for injury in the sport.
“It was really hard for me to let him do that but I said to the doctor, ‘Sometimes I wonder how I can let him do this,’ she said. The doctor said, ‘I don’t know how you can’t let him do this.’ It meant that much to him to continue.”
The luge community is a small one, much like Lake Placid. Duncan got to meet a pair of USA Luge members: one was his coach at the time and the other was Fred Zimny, who is now his junior nationals coach.
Duncan’s health remained the coaches' top priority, but luge wasn't far behind. Zimny deliberately avoided discussing Duncan's illness with him, saying the sport would provide a needed distraction.
It wasn’t long before Olympian luger Erin Hamlin reached out to Jill.
“I don’t have much but the one thing I have is a lot of hair,” Jill recalled Hamlin saying. “…All I could think was, ‘Oh gosh, she can’t shave her beautiful hair.’”
But Hamlin already had the name for the fundraiser set: “Locks for Luge.” She said that in some way or another, everyone has been touched by cancer. Hamlin knew someone in her position—fresh off a 2014 Olympic bronze medal—she could help.
Hamlin recruited her teammates, including 2018 Olympic winner Chris Mazdzer and Jayson Terdiman and soon the fundraiser was born. Despite being nervous about chopping her signature long hair, Hamlin cut her locks. The others did too, raising over $6,000 to aid Duncan's medical costs and luge expenses.
But mostly she was amazed that Duncan stuck with luging.
“There were days without having to go through those treatments, I felt terrible and was sore and was tired,” she said. “That’s impressive to be able to put your body through that and still be able to show up and slide and still train and dedicate yourself to the sport. It showed a lot. That’s the type of attitude we need in kids to be in this sport.”
Like Duncan, Zimny has also known Hamlin since she started luge, introducing her to the slide for the first term at an event in Syracuse. As he was starting his career, so was she.
“Erin is just one of those people that you want to see be successful. She’s one of those athletes that you think an Olympian should be. She has those Olympic ideals.”
As Hamlin has become the face of U.S. luge through her medal and world championship appearances, she’s helped the younger generation in various ways, whether it was through Duncan’s fundraiser or simply offering advice on making the sport work with their goals.
Two surgeries and three rounds of chemo later, Duncan, now 17, is two years cancer free. He’s on the junior national team and has put college plans on hold as he continues to luge.
He plays soccer and baseball at his high school but luge is his favorite. He loves speeding down the course and the opportunities to travel. He recently returned from Germany’s Junior World Championships where he slid doubles.
Hamlin was Team USA’s flag bearer at this year’s Games and has finished her Olympic career in PyeongChang. She didn’t repeat her historic medal this year, instead landing in sixth.
And while the she’s been able to luge for so long so well, something else has made her career more memorable.
“Obviously wining and getting medals and being successful in the sport is awesome, and that’s what I set out to do. But getting to that point and having the opportunity to impact things bigger than just a race I think is more worth it.”