Fourth place might be the most painful of all Olympic finishes - so close to the medals, so far from actually reaching the medals podium. But those one-spot-away showings represent the best results anyone has ever gotten in an Olympic singles race for USA Luge, which has had a slider qualify for either the men’s or women’s fields 79 times over the last half-century.
In other words, 0-for-forever.
Someday, that will change. Maybe Sunday, when medals are awarded in the men’s race at the Sochi Olympics. Or maybe Tuesday, when the women’s hardware is handed out. And if it doesn’t happen - again - it doesn’t really sound like too many people will be that surprised.
“I don’t want to be a pessimist and say it’s unexpected,” said Erin Hamlin, the 2009 women’s world champion for the U.S. “But it is.”
The U.S. has four medals in Olympic luge competition, all in doubles, two silver and two bronze. No gold medals in doubles, nothing in singles, and most of the time they’re the luge equivalent of a mile from the podium. Of the 54 different Americans who have raced in the Olympic singles luge fields - several of them appearing multiple times - only 12 have managed as much as a top-10 finish.
The most likely candidates to have shots at ending the drought at these Sochi Games figure to be Hamlin, World Cup race winner Kate Hansen and two-time World Cup silver medalist Chris Mazdzer.
In a sport dominated by Germans, and at an Olympics where they realistically could win four medals - at least - in the singles races, the Americans may have a bit of hope at finally grabbing one.
“We’ve never had that singles medal in the Olympics,” said Mazdzer, who was 13th at his Olympic debut in the Vancouver Games four years ago. “I mean, that would … it’s been a long time coming. We’re pushing almost 70 years now that we’ve been trying. I think it would be a celebration for not only the athlete that finally does it but also the organization as a whole.”
It hasn’t been quite 70 years. Luge has been part of the Olympic program since 1964.
Still, Mazdzer’s point is clear: It’s been long enough without an American flag being raised after an Olympic singles race.
Over the last dozen years, the Americans have often felt like they were getting closer. Racing on home ice at the Salt Lake City Games in 2002, Heidt finished 0.323 seconds back of Austria’s Markus Prock for the bronze. At Cesana Pariol in 2006, Zablocki was 0.392 seconds behind Germany’s Tatjana Huefner for the No. 3 spot. That same year, Benshoof missed his bronze by 0.153 seconds.
“It would have been nice to get on the podium, but I can’t get down on myself for a fourth-place finish. It’s still pretty good,” Benshoof said that night in the frosty Italian Alps. “There were only three guys that were better than me in the Olympics.”