- Associated Press - Thursday, January 23, 2014

Erin Hamlin always dreamed of skidding into the finish area, stepping off her luge and bathing in Olympic glory. A gold medal hanging from her neck was all she ever wanted.

Vancouver was where it was supposed to happen. She wasn’t close.

Instead, Hamlin’s experience four years ago in Whistler, British Columbia, left the U.S. slider empty-handed and dejected after she placed a disappointing 16th.

“There was no way that was going to be the way I was going to go out,” the 2009 world champion said recently.

Hamlin’s back for her third run at an Olympic medal in Sochi, where a young American luge team will attempt to keep up to speed with the dominating Germans, who won five of nine possible medals in 2010 and have plans for an even larger haul on the Sanki Sliding Center track in Russia’s Caucasus Mountains.

Hamlin arrived in Vancouver as the defending world champion in the luge, a sport that features athletes zooming feet-first down an icy track. She was the favorite and poised to become the first U.S. singles luger to climb the Olympic podium.

Tragedy re-routed the trip down the ice for her and other competitors.

Just hours before the opening ceremony, the horrific death of Georgia men’s luger Nodar Kumaritashvili during a practice run led to major changes in the sliding competition. Fearing the track was too fast for some competitors, organizers shortened it by lowering the starts to reduce speed and make it safer.

Unable to solve the reconfigured first curve, Hamlin didn’t have enough distance to make up time and her dreams of gold were dashed.

She never made any excuses, and now in her third games, Hamlin will try again.

“I didn’t dwell on what happened,” she said. “I can’t think of what might have been.”

The addition of a new team relay will give Hamlin another chance at a medal and perhaps land the U.S. its first in something other than doubles.

Here are five other things to know about the 2014 Sochi luge competition:

GOLDEN LOCH: Germany’s Felix Loch is, well, nearly a lock to win gold again.

Loch will defend his Olympic title against a strong field he has outraced on the World Cup circuit this season. The 6-foot-3 Loch, who fine-tuned his sled driving skills inside BMW’s wind tunnels, is attempting to become the third men’s luger to win consecutive Olympic golds.

He won his first at age 20, and Loch could one day join legendary countryman Georg Hackl as the sport’s only three-time Olympic champion. And 40-year-old Armin Zoeggeler of Italy, gold medalist in 2006 and 2010, will try to become the first Olympian to win six medals at six Winter Games.

YOUTH.S.A.: The U.S. team has undergone a major makeover with only three athletes - Hamlin, Chris Mazdzer and Christian Niccum - returning from the Vancouver squad.

The Americans have naiveté on their side, but nothing can replace experience, especially inside the Olympic rings.

At only 27, Hamlin is the sage veteran among the woman sliders with Summer Britcher (19) and Kate Hansen (21).

“They keep me young,” Hamlin said of her teammates.

On the men’s singles side, Mazdzer, 25, is joined on the American team by first-time U.S. Olympians Tucker West, 18, and 19-year-old Aidan Kelly.

TAMER TRACK: In response to safety concerns, the Sanki track was designed with three “uphill” sections that will keep speeds at a reasonable level. Although the descent may not be as exhilarating for racers, the track is challenging and will force athletes to be precise or risk losing time.

“It’s nothing too crazy,” American doubles luger Jayson Terdiman said of the gradual inclines, “but you can feel it slow you down.”

RELAY RIDE: No, racers won’t be passing a baton at 80 mph, but the relay will require teamwork, timing and accuracy.

A female slider will start, and when she reaches the end of the course, she must rise out of her sled and slap a pad hanging over the finish line. That will open the gate up top for the male slider, who after finishing must slap the pad to send the men’s doubles team down the track.

The relay has been a big hit with fans during World Cup events.

POWERHOUSE PROGRAM: Germany’s domination in luge includes winning all three World Cup disciplines this season.

Natalie Geisenberger, a bronze medalist in Vancouver, won six straight World Cup events and seven of the first eight this season in capturing her second straight championship. She’s the one to beat.

In women’s luge, Germany has won the past four Olympic golds, 10 of the last 12 medals awarded and 29 of a possible 36 since the 1964 Innsbruck Games.

Germany’s Tobias Wendl and Tobias Arlt won the World Cup doubles championship this season and are favored to win golds in Sochi.

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