PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — At the base of the Alpensia Sliding Center, right around 9:40 local time Tuesday night, the career of the most successful luge racer in American history crossed the finish line for the last time. There was no storybook ending, no trip to the podium with a John Elway-like ride into the winter sunset. In her last race, Erin Hamlin finished sixth.
When she crossed the line, she thought not of the finality of her last competitive run but rather something else entirely. Something that revealed the fire within her all these years. “My only thought was ‘Oh shoot,'” she said. “I totally ruined that run.”
Some 35 miles down the coast, right around the same time, another American Olympic icon was writing one of the last chapters of his own career. Speedskater Shani Davis, the first African American to ever medal in the Winter Olympics, had just finished 16th in the in the 1,500 meters when he stepped into the mixed zone and faced the American media for the first time since his controversial tweet about not being chosen as flag-bearer for the Opening Ceremony.
In that one moment, in less than 280 characters, Davis permanently tied he and Hamlin together in the weirdest of ways. His tweet said he hadn’t been chosen because of a “dishonorable” coin toss. Yes, the vote between Hamlin and Davis had tied 4-4. And yes, it had been decided by a coin toss, which the USOC had long ago decided would break any ties. Davis then elected to skip the Opening Ceremony, a decision he had already made if he wasn’t the flag-bearer.
But the damage was done.
Hamlin refused to let the incident cloud over the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, deflecting any hint of frustration with Davis and insisting her focus was on the task at hand — and not tripping.
And so, it was strange in a way, that they both began to say their goodbyes on the same Tuesday night in South Korea. While Hamlin has insisted these Olympics would be the last competition of her career, Davis has yet to talk about retirement. And he still has the 1,000 meter race left Thursday. But at 35 years old and, after his performance Tuesday night, it’s likely this is the beginning of the end.
“After the Olympics have gone, I will sit back and go through everything in my mind, but I’m just happy to be here,” he said Tuesday night. The Olympics is a beautiful thing.”
After Hamlin crossed the finish line Tuesday night, she waved the crowd and took her temporary place on the medal stand. There was no jumping in the stands to hug her mom and dad or high-fives for her brothers in their stars and stripes red-white-and-blue suits. Later, she talked about how content she was with her decision. How she is planning a wedding for this July and is looking forward to a normal life.
She chuckled that she wanted nothing more than a pizza and some extra sleep. And she admitted that despite failing to reach the medal stand, this Olympics would be one she’d never forget after having the honor of leading 244 American athletes into the Olympic Stadium during the Opening Ceremony.
“It will be super memorable,” she said. “I’ve had devastating Olympics and awesome Olympics in Sochi. This will definitely be memorable with the flag-bearer.”
After his race, Davis began his media scrum by telling reporters he would only answer skating-specific questions. He then answered a few questions, noted he had 10 days to get the “cobwebs out” before the 1,000. He insisted the Opening Ceremony saga wasn’t a distraction. “I’ve been through a lot worse than what’s been going on for the past few weeks.”
Earlier in the day, he gave an interview to a Dutch newspaper, saying, “You know, once every four years, my fifth Olympics, I thought it would be really special to hold the flag. I guess the USOC and other people thought differently. I’m over it.”
Hamlin and Davis. They couldn’t have come from more different backgrounds. Davis growing up on the South Side of Chicago with a chip on his shoulder, an African American out to prove he could win on his own terms. And Hamlin from the tiny north central New York town of Remsen, at the foot of the Adirondacks — population 1,900. In Remsen, the local junior and senior high opened their doors before dawn Tuesday morning so students could pack the gym and watch their hometown compete for her second medal.
And yet for all their differences their stories are more similar than not. They were both Olympic disruptors. In drastically different ways, for sure, but disruptors none the less. Hamlin’s bio will tell you she retires with just one Olympic medal — a bronze from Sochi four years ago. But that medal was the first ever for an American in luge, a drought that covered 50 years and 13 Olympics.
Twenty-nine of the 39 medals given out over that span went to Germans. None to anyone from North America. In Sochi, Hamlin was the first. And although she and her American teammates were shutout from the podium Tuesday night, guess who won the bronze? A Canadian.
And then there’s Davis. In Torino, he was the first African American to win winter gold in an individual event. Four years later in Vancouver, he was the first to win back-to-back golds. But along the way, he fought with USA Speedskating, drawn criticism for not participating in a team pursuit race all the while becoming one of the most recognized American stars in the Olympics.
Retirement often brings talk of legacy. With Davis, beyond the four Olympic medals, look no further than his own team, where Erin Jackson and Maame Bimey are the first African American women to ever make the speedskating team in Pyeongchang. As for Hamlin, when asked Tuesday night how she wanted to be remembered she said nothing about World Cup victories or Olympic medal.
“Maybe someone who broke barriers down, who kind of made that breakthrough to let the flood gates go,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of different colors on that flag pole since I won worlds in 2009. Our team has gotten so competitive and to think I had the slightest impact on that would be so cool.”
ESPN The Magazine reporter Dotun Akintoye contributed to this report.