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Erin Hamlin of USA speeds down the track during the women's race of the luge World Cup in Winterberg, Germany, Sunday, Dec. 1, 2013.
Erin Hamlin already has accomplished the unthinkable in the world of luge, so she'll head to the Sochi Olympics with an anything-is-possible mindset and a goal: to make her grandmother proud.
Just as former U.S. skeleton star Jimmy Shea did 12 years ago at Salt Lake City, Hamlin will be competing at the Winter Games in the aftermath of the tragic death of a grandparent. Hamlin's 75-year-old grandmother, Joan Hamlin, was killed in December in a head-on collision in rural upstate New York while her granddaughter was preparing to compete in a World Cup event in Park City, Utah.
"It was extremely difficult to be completely all in the race when I know my family is all at home and something tragic has happened," said the 27-year-old Hamlin of Remsen, N.Y., who finished eighth in the Park City race behind winner Natalie Geisenberger of Germany. "I can't change it. She would be disappointed if I let it affect me too badly and decided against doing things as far as the Olympics. I'll try to do things that wouldn't have disappointed her, I guess."
Hamlin reached one of the pinnacles of her sport five years ago, besting Geisenberger to win the gold medal at world championships on Hamlin's home track at Mount Van Hoevenberg outside Lake Placid. The triumph was stunning because it ended a 99-race winning streak by the German women, and Hamlin's grandmother, despite health problems, was at the finish line to soak in the moment with the family.
"She was as close to her grandma as you could be," said Erin's mother, Eilleen.
Shea, too, was close to his 91-year-old grandfather, but America's oldest living Winter Olympics gold medalist at the time never made it to Salt Lake City. Jack Shea, who won two speedskating gold medals at the 1932 Lake Placid Olympics, died three weeks before the 2002 Winter Games from internal injuries suffered in a car accident involving a drunk driver less than a mile from the speed skating oval where he etched his name in Olympic history.
"I remember getting the phone call late at night from my father," Jimmy Shea recalled recently. "I knew something was wrong. He started choking up. I remember saying, 'No! No! No! He's fine! He's fine!' It meant so much to him. He was so excited to be going. He was asked to light the torch. That was a big secret. He was going to light the torch. I remember being out there thinking, 'This isn't right.' "
"This kind of death is hard," Jimmy Shea's mother, Judy, said. "It's shocking."
Inspired perhaps because he was a member of the first family to produce three generations of Winter Olympians — Jack's son, Jim, competed in three skiing events at Innsbruck in 1964 — Jimmy Shea rose to the moment after being chosen by fellow athletes to recite the Athlete's Oath during the Opening Ceremonies just as his grandfather had done seven decades earlier.
"My coach, Randy Will, said something that stuck," said Shea, who had a photo of his grandfather tucked inside his helmet during the competition. "He said, 'Your grandfather hasn't gone anywhere, buddy. You can still talk to him. He's still there. You remember everything he taught you. He's with you. Take him for a ride. He's going to be watching through your eyes. Give him something to see."
That's exactly what Shea did, capturing the gold medal — three years after he became the only American male to win gold at skeleton world championships.
Hamlin faces a similar scenario and Shea offered some advice.
"It's up to her to remember," said Shea, now a motivational speaker. "The memories and everything that her grandmother taught her have not gone away. Your grandmother is still with you. She's still watching. Go over there and give her a great show."
Mom expects nothing less.
"Erin's a tough cookie," Eilleen Hamlin said. "She has a knack for kind of compartmentalizing things, so she's able to kind of focus on her luge. I think that week (her grandmother died) was a tough week for her emotionally because she had expectations for herself, and her family was going to be out there and couldn't (go). Here she was in a spot, 'Do I race? Grandmother Hamlin would want me to race.' She came to the right conclusion on her own, but it was a difficult week."
Hamlin finished sixth in the 2013-14 World Cup standings, well behind champion Geisenberger, whom she beat by 0.187 seconds for that precious breakthrough gold medal.
Time for another breakthrough? Maybe. At the very least, the USA mittens Hamlin's grandmother received before her death will be on somebody's hands clapping at the finish line in Sochi.
"Anything's possible," Eilleen Hamlin said. "It's going to be the aligning of the stars. We're kind of crossing our fingers."