IGLS, Austria - Defending world champion and two-time Olympian Erin Hamlin began the World Cup luge season Saturday right where she left off last season, scoring a bronze medal on the 1964 and 1976 Olympic track, outside Innsbruck, Austria.
Showing depth that will be needed to contend with the likes of Germany, Hamlin's veteran teammate and 2002 Olympian Ashley Walden jumped into fifth place in her return to World Cup racing after back surgery.
"It was a gorgeous day today, but colder. The track was a lot faster than training, although nothing too drastic," Hamlin said. "This was a good start to the season for me and for the new coaching staff. I would like to maintain this level of performance for the upcoming races."
Hamlin, a Remsen native who turned 24 last week, tallied three World Cup bronze medals and placed fourth in the 2010 overall standings.
"The work I did over the summer definitely paid off," Hamlin said. "I'm stronger at the start, and compared to the field, I was much closer."
Hamlin's lone bobbles came in the start curve. "In the exits, I had to thread the needle," she said.
The United States rounded out its effort with a third racer in the top 15 as Julia Clukey, who is among the fastest starters on the circuit, landed in 11th place. Emily Sweeney took 22nd.
This was Walden's second-best performance since a bronze in January 2005 in Winterberg, Germany, a track she will re-visit next weekend for the second World Cup race. The 29-year-old who lives part-time in Lake Placid, also placed fourth in the 2007 Nagano World Cup.
"For this season, my focus is on returning from back surgery," Walden said. "I altered my summer training to not aggravate my back. In my start technique I stopped throwing myself into the compression, and am concentrating on paddling.
"I am also pretty light right now and am carrying 11 kilos of lead. That's a lot to move. An extra kilo or two (of natural weight) would help."
Once again, the day belonged to Germany as 2010 Olympic champion Tatyana Huefner took a 14th of a second advantage in the first heat over teammate and 2010 Olympic bronze medal winner Natalie Geissenberger.
Huefner set a start record to begin her second heat, and converted that into a convincing .2 second victory over Geissenberger. Huefner won for the 22nd time on the World Cup. She was clocked in 39.851 and 39.743 seconds - best of each session - for a combined 1 minute, 19.594.
"I'm really surprised by the big winning margin," Huefner said. "It feels good to be on the top spot of the podium again right at the season's opener. I like the track in Igls, and the sled seems to be just fine."
Geissenberger totaled 1:19.802, followed by Hamlin (1:19.974) and Walden (1:20.091). Julia Clukey posted 1:20.399, while Sweeney's time was 1:22.584.
German women have been undefeated in World Cup racing since 1997. They have captured every world and Olympic title during that span, other than Hamlin's sterling effort in Lake Placid two seasons ago.
Austria's Nina Reithmayer, the surprise 2010 Olympic silver medalist at Whistler, invigorated the local supporters with a fourth place run in the first leg. But instead of threatening for a medal, Reithmayer crashed through the finish curve in the final heat and fell back to 23rd.
The pleasure of delighting the hometown crowd was provided by the Austrian doubles sleds, which grabbed gold and bronze medals, while the U.S. took fifth and ninth.
Torino and Vancouver Olympic champions and brothers, Wolfgang and Andreas Linger, slid into first place, posting the fastest times of the day with 39.457 and 39.489 for an aggregate 1:18.946.
It was the first win for the Lingers in Austria.
"We absolutely wanted to achieve this victory," Andreas Linger said. "With two Olympic gold medals in one's pocket but no success on the home track - well, that doesn't leave such a good impression. This is also the reason why today's success means so much to us. Of course, we'll still have to take the overall World Cup victory in order to complete our collection, but you can't really force it. We have to take it from race to race."
The top American sled of Christian Niccum and new partner Jayson Terdiman capped a successful first weekend of racing together. In their initial foray into the World Cup, Niccum and Terdiman took fifth place in 1:19.285, after racing to the top of the field in Friday's one-heat Nations Cup qualifier. They struggled in Saturday's opening run to place ninth, before staging a furious second heat rally.
"We had first run jitters, but our goal was a top five and we got it," said two-time Olympian Niccum. "The first run could have been a lot better. We touched a wall, but kept going and didn't freak out. We have to take our natural abilities to the track and bring it on race day."
"Overall, this was very positive experience for me," added Terdiman. "We were really 'on' for the Nations Cup, but we had trouble today in the first run through the start curve. We both felt the run was not flowing. Then we scraped the wall in (curve) 13 and it cost us. But it's the first time I got to stand in the leader's box for a few minutes (after the final heat). That felt great."
Matt Mortensen, of Huntington Station, with Preston Griffall, of Salt Lake City, Utah, were ninth in 1:19.533.
The overall effort was met with a positive reaction from the new Lake Placid-based coaching staff.
"I was really pleased with how we slid today," said Sport Program Director Mark Grimmette, Olympic silver and bronze medalist, and 2010 U.S. flagbearer. "The great thing today is that everyone showed speed, and I'm happy with how we conducted ourselves.
"I'm a lot more nervous now than in the past. It's more difficult to keep track of everyone," he joked. "It's good to get that first race out of the way.
"We have a very strong team with depth now, too."
Italians Christian Oberstolz and Patrick Gruber picked up the silver medal in 1:19.127. Peter Penz and Georg Fischler, also of Austria, were third in 1:19.142.
The remainder of the Igls program will conclude Sunday with men's singles and team relay events. The latter competition is being examined by the International Olympic Committee for potential inclusion into the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.