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 well enough that no one could bump her from the medal stand. She just needed to lie back and enjoy the rest of the ride.
Hamlin crossed the finish line seconds later, assuring herself the bronze and becoming the first American to win an Olympic medal in a singles luge event.
"It's surreal," the 27-year-slider said of her third-place finish. "I came here with no expectations and this is beyond what I imagined."
It, indeed, seemed an unimaginable ending for a three-time Olympian who could still feel the sting of her last Winter Games. Favored to medal in Vancouver four years ago, Hamlin 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.
Ranked sixth in the world, Hamlin did not reach the podium in any World Cup race this season. She openly doubted her chances here, telling reporters last week that her best shot at winning an Olympic medal had been four years ago.
Her position, however, evolved quickly after she found a feel for the Russian track in training sessions. When she looked at practice times and compared them with those of her top competitors, she began to believe in her own possibilities.
"I started thinking, 'Hmm, maybe I can do this.' I felt better than I anticipated," she said. "At the same time, I just really wanted to enjoy it and have fun."
Hamlin finished 1.37 seconds behind Germany's Natalie Geisenberger, who maintained her country's dominance in the sliding sport. German Tatjana Huefner, who won gold in Vancouver four years ago, finished second.
Americans Kate Hansen and Summer Britcher finished 10th and 15th, respectively.
Hansen, 21, fought back tears as she watched Hamlin clinch the historic bronze. The younger slider — who has benefited from Hamlin's guidance over the years — immediately understood what the medal meant for both her teammate and her federation.
"This is a huge deal," Hansen said. "She is one of the hardest-working athletes I know and this is so well-deserved for her. It's been a long time coming and I'm just stoked that she could bring it back home."
Hamlin said she, too, hopes her medal will raise the profile of the U.S. luge program, which long has been considered the poor sister to the European dynasties because of its inferior funding and obscure existence.
Germany, for example, has now won the event five times in a row, the longest active winning streak in any sport at the Olympic Winter Games. The United States had not won a luge medal in any discipline since 2002.
"Luge isn't the biggest sport at home," Hamlin said. "Hopefully this gives it a boost. I'm happy to pave the way to the future."