Youthful luge team has high expectations

Photo by Scott Chancey

Photo by Scott Chancey

World luge champion Erin Hamlin just turned 23 years old, plans to spend at least four more seasons racing for gold medals and probably hasn't even reached her athletic peak.

And get this -- she's one of the oldest on the USA Luge women's roster.

"I definitely never consider myself the elder," Hamlin said.

At this rate, she might have no choice.

Kate Hansen is already on the World Cup circuit at 17. Emily Sweeney could be on the top international series by next week, at the ripe old age of 16. Her big sister Megan Sweeney made this season's World Cup team, and she's only 22. Julia Clukey is the oldest in the team room, all of 24.

Some of them can't even vote yet, few of them can rent a car without difficulty, but give them a luge sled and a speed suit and they're among the fastest in the world at the art of getting down an icy mountainside chute at 80 mph. The future is clearly bright -- and in this season leading to the Vancouver Olympics, the future might be now, too.

"It is impressive," Hamlin said. "It's a sport where experience plays such a huge role. But at the same time, I think our program has come a long way. And they're good. They're young, but I think sometimes it does help a little too because you still know how to have fun and that's a huge part of it."

The best women in the world have years of experience on most of the upstart Americans.

Germany is the powerhouse in luge, with tens of thousands of schoolkids having access to the nation's tracks. The average age of the top four German women is 26, while the average age of the top four on the U.S. roster is 21 -- and that could drop even lower if Emily Sweeney gets added to the World Cup squad next week, possibly at her sister's expense.

But while Hansen and Emily Sweeney are still carrying the "junior" designation, they can compete at the big level. Hansen easily won USA Luge's race-off series this fall to earn her spot on the national team, and Sweeney won one event in that race-off series as well.

"Our women's team is pretty deep," longtime USA Luge doubles racer Mark Grimmette said. "I think during the fall, we had seven or eight women that are competing for a World Cup spot and they were all very close and competing very well. It's fun to watch that. It's kind of funny to think that my first trip to Europe was before most of them were born."

That's actually true.

By the time the Vancouver Games come around, Grimmette will be 39, his doubles teammate Brian Martin 36.

Put it this way: Grimmette's favorite movie is the original "Star Wars," which was released in 1977 and therefore is practically twice as old as some of the current American women.

"This has all happened for me way faster than I expected," Hansen said.

One of the U.S. kids might soon find herself in a very grown-up situation.

Emily Sweeney is on the Nation's Cup circuit right now, one step below the World Cup level. If Hansen, Clukey or Megan Sweeney fail to finish in the top nine of this weekend's World Cup stop at Igls, Austria, they will have to race against Emily Sweeney to keep their spot on the World Cup team.

So that means a sister vs. sister race for a spot on the USA Luge varsity could be a week away. It's not a pleasant situation for either to think about.

"For me, it's a little awkward," Emily Sweeney said. "We talked about it in Park City and it kind of came to we both support each other with where we're at. We've both worked really hard and it's both of our dreams, so whatever is meant to happen will happen."

The more senior members of the team all agree, these kids are serious about the sport.

Hamlin said her younger teammates show a maturity well beyond their years, which will surely help during the pressure-packed times that accompany an Olympic season.

That being said, she doesn't feel like the team's grande dame yet.

"Mark and Brian are still here," Hamlin said. "They keep me young."