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."
FIGURE SKATING TEAMWORK: With figure skating adding a team competition at these Olympics, the American contingent has certainly been acting like a single squad before the Winter Games.
U.S. men's champion Jeremy Abbott said the skaters headed to Sochi had created a group on the WhatsApp app so they can all exchange messages among themselves. They've been chatting daily, planning activities they can do together in the athletes' village.
"It's cool to feel like part of a team since we've been individuals our entire careers," Abbott said.
Abbott, who also was on the Vancouver Olympic team four years ago, said he hasn't experienced that level of camaraderie among the American skaters in the past.
"It's just an ongoing conversation of just random stuff and moral support and this and that and absolute nonsense," Abbott said with a laugh.
And most importantly: "Many exchanges of adorable animal pictures."
BOBSLED ALTERNATES: U.S. bobsled teammates Katie Eberling, Kristi Koplin, Chris Langton and Andreas Drbal are headed to Sochi for their first Olympic Winter Games in a unique capacity — as replacement athletes.
The four will travel and train with the team during the Games, and they can substitute for competing athletes during training runs and will be eligible to compete if somebody gets injured or gets sick. If a replacement is needed, a selection committee will re-evaluate the teams and make a nomination.
"There is definitely a mixed feeling of content and disappointment," said Drbal of Belmont, Calif. "Being selected as an alternate is not a position an athlete wants to be in when all the qualities of being a high-caliber Olympian are there. Everything happens for a reason, and the way the season panned out will set us up physically and mentally for always a bigger opportunity in the future.
"We are here to grow as individuals, and I am happy to see that progress is on a constant upward scale. Giving up is not in our repertoire."
Drbal said he considered his role important role because it's meant to help prepare the U.S. sleds to perform at the highest level.
"It is a fantastic position to be in in — seeing that you helped a team succeed to its maximum potential."
ANOTHER OLYMPICS, ANOTHER TEAM FOR SAVCHENKO: Aliona Savchenko will be competing for her second country at the Olympics.
While still skating for her native Ukraine in 2000, Savchenko won the World Junior Pairs Championship with Stanislav Morozov.
In 2003, she moved to Germany and teamed with Robin Szolkowy, acquiring German citizenship in 2006. After finishing sixth at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, in 2007 they became the first German pair to win a European title in 12 years and their initial world title in 2008 was the first for Germany in 11 years.
Savchenko and Szolkowy were among the top favorites in the pairs competition at the European championships, but withdrew after placing second in the short program when Savchenko aggravated a respiratory tract infection.
Coach Ingo Steur said "she might be sick for 10 days" had she decided to stay in the competition. "The second half of the free skating is tough and the risk of injury too high."
Szolkowy said withdrawing was "the only proper decision" in light of the Olympics. "Anyway, there is no danger concerning Sochi."
The pair has won four of the last six world championships and has also won the European title four times. At the 2010 Vancouver Games, they were third behind two Chinese pairs. Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo won gold, with the silver going to Pang Qing and Tong Jian.
Savchenko often designs the pair's costumes and their trademark element is the throw triple axel, though they refused to reveal whether it would be in their program in Sochi.
AP Sports Writers Rachel Cohen, Pat Graham and Larry Lage, and Hungary correspondent Pablo Gorondi contributed to this story.