More than a decade after Kate Hansen first began her days practicing the luge, she finds herself upon the doorstep of realizing her Olympics dream.
In her second attempt at making the United States Olympics women’s luge team, the La Cañada High graduate succeeded and will now turn her dream into a reality Monday when she makes her first run at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
“I’m excited to finally live out my dream,” said the 21-year-old Hansen, a 2010 La Cañada High graduate and a lifelong La Cañada Flintridge resident who began sliding when she was 10 after attending a luge recruitment camp in Long Beach.
Still roughly four weeks ahead of the Olympic Games, Hansen was in Altenberg, Germany for the eighth leg of the International Luge Federation Viessmann Luge World Cup series in mid-January.
“Honestly, I’m satisfied. I’m satisfied just making the team,” said Hansen, who added her goals were not to fall on her face on TV and to make her parents proud first and foremost. “Second, I think a top 10 would be great. I think I’ve got it in me. If the stars align for me, I think a top five would be pretty cool.”
But then things changed dramatically for Hansen when she won the final race in the World Cup series in Sigulda, Latvia. With the victory, Hansen became the first United States singles racer to win a World Cup event since 1997 and definitely altered expectations heading to Sochi.
“I definitely have a lot of confidence going into the games,” Hansen stated via email two days after her win on Jan. 25. “I still think the same about a top 10 finish and whatnot, but maybe medaling isn’t so much outta the question. I’m not going to expect or assume anything and I’m just going to give it my all.”
Were Hansen or any of her teammates to ascend to the podium and win a medal, it would also make history as a United States woman has never claimed a medal, with Courtney Zablocki’s fourth-place finish in 2006 standing as the top finish for an American female.
Perhaps Hansen’s World Cup triumph is just the catalyst needed to change history. At least that’s what Team USA is obviously hoping for.
“Kate's win has given the team a good sense of what's possible,” stated USA luge sports program director and coach Mark Grimmette via email. “When an athlete realizes success, they grow to expect more from themselves and the team as a whole. Success can breed success.”
Grimmette is a former five-time Olympian who won two of USA luge’s four medals in its history – one silver and one bronze. All four have been claimed by men’s doubles sliders.
Hansen, who finished seventh in the final World Cup standings, is joined on the Team USA women’s squad by Erin Hamlin, 27, of New York and Summer Britcher, 19, of Pennsylvania.
Hansen and the field will take to the course with Germany’s Natalie Geisenberger as the favorite for gold after a dominant showing in claiming her second straight World Cup series championship.
Germany, which houses four luge tracks in comparison to two for the United States in Utah and New York, has long dominated the sport. A German woman has won every gold medal in luge since 1998 and Germany has claimed 10 of the last 12 medals overall in the last four games.
“The Germans are definitely the favorites,” said USA luge director of marketing and sponsorship Gordy Sheer, adding he expects Canada to be a player, as well as possibly the Russians, who he said could be a “wild card” on their home course.
Geisenberger will look to win her first gold medal after having won seven of the first eight races in the World Cup series. Tatjana Huefner of Germany was the only luger to defeat Geisenberger, winning the seventh race of the circuit and finishing third in the standings — four of the top five spots in the final standings were occupied by German lugers.
Hansen, however, led off the World Cup season in Lillehammer with a first-place run, but her second run dropped her to 12th with Geisenberger getting the win.
Hansen also had her previous top finish on Dec. 14 in Park City, Utah, as she finished fourth and solidified her spot on the Olympic team.
Capping the season in thrilling fashion, Hansen won World Cup gold in the ninth and final race in Sigulda, Latvia. She beat out Canada’s Alex Gough, who finished second in the race and the cup standings.
“When you’re in the zone … you seem to be going fast no matter what the track,” Sheer said. “Hopefully she can carry this forward.”
Of note was that the race was without Germany’s top three racers, but Hansen’s time of 1 minute 23.976 seconds over her two runs was still impressive, no matter who was there or not.
“If you look back at who Kate beat, she beat people who beat the different Germans before,” said Sheer, a three-time former Olympian who won silver in doubles in 1998. “I certainly don’t think we can discount what Kate did.”
Hamlin is making her third appearance in the Winter Olympics, having finished 12th in the 2006 games and 16th in 2010. She finished as the No. 6 women’s luger in the World Cup standings.
Britcher, like Hansen, is making her Olympics debut. She finished 14th in the World Cup standings.
Hansen, who joins Peter Wells, a 2004 Olympian in sailing, as former Spartans to qualify for the games, and the USA luge team arrived in Sochi on Sunday.
After a track walk and inspection Monday, training runs began Tuesday with a press conference that evening.
Opening ceremonies take place Friday, airing on NBC, which, along with its affiliates will host the games.
The men’s luge is set to run Feb. 8-9 before Hansen and the ladies take to the track on Feb. 10-11.
Hansen’s Olympics run could extend past Feb. 11, however, as the luge team relay will make its Olympics debut on Feb. 13.
The relay features one woman, one man and a doubles team. Whoever is the top finisher between Hansen, Hamill and Britcher will take part in the relay.
“Kate is a strong racer. She can go through a week of training, struggling on the track every run, come out on race day and put it all together,” Grimmette stated. “She has a solid mind for racing and she thrives on high energy and enthusiasm.”
And so, Hansen is set to realize her dream of competing in the Olympics and will do so, along with her teammates, as underdogs, but a lot can happen in two days and two runs down the track.
“Anything is possible at the Olympics,” Sheer said. “She just needs to have two good days.”