Kate Hansen entered this season as a candidate for the third spot on the U.S. Olympic women's luge team that will compete in Sochi this winter.
That might be understating her potential.
Hansen announced herself as a big contender for the Olympic team, beating the two most accomplished sliders on the U.S. women's luge team to win this year's national championship on Sunday at the Mount Van Hoevenberg track in Lake Placid, N.Y.
Winning the national title doesn't assure Hansen any Olympic or World Cup spot — seeding races will do that — but Sunday's victory provides lots of momentum.
"I'm impressed I had it in me," said Hansen, who won a junior world championship on the Lake Placid track in 2008. "I'm feeling pretty good. It hasn't hit me yet. I'm more or less just grateful that I threw down some solid runs."
Chris Mazdzer won the men's national title, and the team of Jacob Hyrns and Andrew Sherk took their first doubles crown. They well on their way to winning nationals last season before getting disqualified from nationals because of a sled infraction.
Hansen's two-run time was 1 minute, 30.136 seconds, and she posted the fastest time in both heats on the way to beating Julia Clukey by 0.19 seconds and Erin Hamlin — who won a world championship on the Lake Placid track in 2009 — by 0.25 seconds. Those time differentials may not sound like much, but those are fairly sizable margins in a sport where things get measured to the thousandths of a second.
Hansen led Hamlin by 0.038 seconds after the first run, and Clukey by 0.066 seconds.
So Hansen was sitting on the lead for about an hour between Run 1 and Run 2, and knowing the two leaders of her team were close behind wasn't an easy feeling.
"My mind was definitely wandering before the second run," Hansen said. "But I can't let myself do that because I feel like I'm already defeated. So I tried to stay focused on my second run and just lay it down."
And that's exactly what she did, wrapping up the title with a run of 44.98 seconds — the only sub-45-second time posted by a woman in the competition.
Emily Sweeney (1:30.578) was fourth in the women's race, and Summer Britcher (1:30.684) was fifth.
Hansen has one of those unique Olympic-season stories. She loves surfing. She hates cold weather. She's from La Canada, Calif. — a palm-tree-lined Southern California town that wouldn't figure to be a luge hotbed, yet was also the home of Maryann Baribault, an Olympic contender for the U.S. in the 1990s.
Hansen almost made the Olympic team as a teenager in 2010, and now figures to have an even better chance of getting to her sport's biggest race.
"Once we get on tour and start traveling, things will definitely get real," Hansen said. "But as for now, this is our first race of many. I think all of us are trying to stay focused, day-by-day, and not let ourselves get too excited for this year because that's when things can go downhill."
In the men's race, Mazdzer finished in 1:46.498, or 0.114 seconds ahead of Tucker West, with whom he shared last season's national title.
"I kind of viewed myself as the underdog today," said Mazdzer, a returning Olympian who wasted a huge lead in last year's nationals and said he some doubts coming into the start of the season. "I like to put myself in the mentality where I'm the underdog and I like to catch everyone else. I think that really carried over to today."
Taylor Morris was third in the men's race, 0.424 seconds off Mazdzer's pace. Mazdzer already has qualified for the first half of the World Cup season, putting him in a very strong position to grab a spot on the Sochi-bound team.
The closest race of nationals came in doubles, where Hyrns and Sherk (1:30.145) just held off veterans and defending champions Matt Mortensen and Preston Griffall (1:30.210). Christian Niccum and Jayson Terdiman (1:30.493) were third.
The Sunday races and a seeding race that ran concurrently will help determine the U.S. fall World Cup luge roster. Another seeding race is scheduled for Oct. 20 in Park City, Utah, before the World Cup season opens next month.