SOCHI, Russia — American luger Erin Hamlin knew heading into the third-to-last turn Tuesday that she belonged to history.
She had slid beautifully over the past two days at the Sanki Sliding Center, amassed a comfortable time cushion during her three previous runs and executed her fourth one well enough that no one could bump her from the medal stand. She just needed to lie back and enjoy the ride.
Hamlin crossed the finish line seconds later, assuring herself the bronze and becoming the first American to win an Olympic medal in singles luge. "It's surreal," Hamlin, 27, said. "I came here with no expectations, and this is beyond what I imagined."
It seemed an unimaginable ending for a three-time Olympian who could still feel the sting of her last Winter Games. Favored to win a medal four years ago, the 2009 world champion finished a devastating 16th after the start gates were lowered to the junior level because of last-minute safety concerns.
"I didn't want that to become my legacy," she said.
Hamlin did not reach the podium in any World Cup race this season. She openly doubted her Games chances, telling reporters last week that her best shot at winning a medal had been four years ago.
Her position, however, evolved quickly after finding a feel for the Russian track in training sessions. When she looked at practice times and compared them with her top competitors, she said she began to believe in her possibilities.
Hamlin finished 1.37 seconds behind Germany's Natalie Geisenberger, who posted the second-largest victory margin in Olympic history. Her final time was 3 minutes, 19.768 seconds, 1.139 seconds better than German teammate Tatjana Huefner, the 2010 champion.
Germany has won the event five times in a row, the longest active winning streak in any sport at the Winter Games. The United States had not won a luge medal in any discipline since 2002. Its first four medals — two silvers and two bronzes — were in doubles races.