SOCHI, Russia – Meeting the international press here for the first time here last week, Summer Britcher frowned when a journalist referred to her as a surprise member of the U.S. luge team.
After all, the reporter asked, who would have expected the Baltimore-born teenager to beat out more veteran sliders for an Olympic spot?
Britcher gave a small smirk and then answered with the fearlessness of someone who willingly hurls herself down an icy track on a cookie sheet.
“I did,” the 19-year-old said. “I thought it was possible.”Currently ranked No. 14 in the world, Britcher embraced that possibility Monday as she made her Olympic debut at the Sanki Sliding Center. She sits in 15th place after two runs, almost certainly taking her out of medal contention when the competition concludes Tuesday.
Still, she smiled after her second run, a grin so wide and so sincere that one would be hard pressed to find a more content non-medalist in the Caucasus Mountains.
“It’s the Olympics,” she said, laughing. “Of course, I’m happy.”
Happiness seemed a shared trait among the U.S. women Monday, as Erin Hamlin slid into third place after the first two runs and put herself on track to become the first U.S. singles luger to ever medal at the Olympics.
Hamlin is currently 0.82 seconds behind reigning world champion Natalie Geisenberger of Germany. Vancouver gold medalist Tatjana Huefner of Germany is in second, trailing her countryman by 0.77 seconds. The total time for each slider's four runs is used to determine the winner.
“I’ll take it,” Hamlin said, laughing.
Despite becoming the first U.S. luger to finish in the top three after the first day of Olympic competition, Hamlin still found fault with her race. She bobbled at the start and bumped a couple of turns too soon, which killed her momentum.
“I feel good and relaxed, but I definitely have things to clean up,” she said.
The U.S. women celebrated Hamlin’s performance Monday as a team victory, in part because they all know what a podium finish would mean for their program. In addition to providing a major confidence boost heading into next year’s World Cup, it would stop the endless questions about the dearth of Olympic luge medals.
“I’m so excited,” Britcher said. “If she can get a medal, it would be so amazing.”
Britcher — the daughter of Baltimore City Fire Department captain Bill Britcher — struggled during training in the days leading up to the competition, hitting walls out two specific curves and skidding at the bottom of the track. She fixed some of those mistakes during her runs Monday, giving the third youngest member of the U.S. Olympic team the best times she posted all week.
She finished with a combined time of 1:42:152, about 2.33 seconds behind Geisenberger. Her American teammate Kate Hansen was in 10th, about 1.56 seconds off the lead.
Despite her age — or perhaps because of it — Britcher, who now lives in Glen Rock, Pa., appeared remarkably relaxed before her Olympic debut. She was so chatty at the start line, in fact, that she drew double takes from onlookers.
“Most people don't talk at the start, they're so serious,” she said. “But I like to joke around and have some fun.”
Once she sat on her sled and approached the start gate, however, she gave herself a silent pep talk.
“I was just trying to have fun. That’s something that I really struggle with. I take everything too seriously sometimes. I was just up there reminding myself that I do this because I enjoy it and to have a good time,” she said. “And I did.”