Erin Hamlin's unforgettable moment
KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia -- In a tiny New York town at the foothills of the Adirondacks, a high school temporarily postponed classes Tuesday. It had nothing to do with snow or bitterly cold weather, but rather a sporting event taking place more than 5,000 miles away.
On this winter afternoon, instead of learning calculus or reading "Romeo and Juliet," the 205 students at Remsen Junior/Senior High School gathered in the school library alongside teachers and administrators in the hope that dreams do in fact come true.
Hometown girl Erin Hamlin was on the verge of making U.S. Olympic history. A day earlier, Hamlin had finished the first two runs of the women's singles luge competition in third place. No American, male or female, had done that before, and none had gone on to stand on the Olympic podium after their third and fourth runs. It was a medal drought that covered 50 years and 13 Olympics. Twenty-nine of the 39 medals given out over that span had gone to Germany. None to the Americans.
But all those kids back in Remsen just knew this would be different.
They knew Erin and her family personally. That's how it is in a town of 1,900 people. Erin's mom was the school nurse, her aunt the school secretary. The kids had gone to the local ice cream parlor and ordered the vanilla ice cream-Oreo-Reese's Peanut Butter Cups-hot fudge-whipped cream combo that had been named after the 27-year-old Hamlin. They had put together an inspirational good luck video that included kids standing together on the gym floor to spell out: GO ERIN. USA. SLIDE FAST. The video had appeared on NBC. They had traveled to nearby Lake Placid to watch Erin race and were there in 2009 when she won the world championship.
But this was the Olympics. This was something more. To the people of Remsen, this was their neighbor, their student, the girl who used to babysit their children and the role model all wrapped into one.
As she sat on her sled and prepared for the start signal, Erin blocked all this from her head. She had come back to the Games to make amends for disappointment in Vancouver in 2010, when she was widely considered a medal favorite but finished 16th overall. (Hamlin and others struggled to adjust to track adjustments that were understandably made in the wake of Georgian slider Nodar Kumaritashvili's death.)
A month after that disappointment, she had told her parents she was ready for Sochi.
"She's a determined girl," said her father, Ron Hamlin. "She likes competition and she doesn't like to fail. So when it doesn't go her way, she's going to keep fighting, keep pushing."
Sitting in the front row of the stands at the finish house draped in red, white and blue, Ron and Eileen Hamlin struggled to control their nerves. During a 15-minute intermission to clean the ice, they did everything they could to try to get off their minds off the one thing they couldn't stop thinking about. They nervously pattered their feet on the metal bleachers. They talked to the Canadians sitting behind them. They squeezed the hands of their sons, Ryan and Sean, who were both wearing onesies draped in the American flag. None of it worked.
"It was hell," Eileen said.
It seemed that the only person who wasn't feeling the nerves was Erin Hamlin. She entered the final race with a .355-second lead over Canada's Alex Gough, who had just completed her run in a good but not spectacular 50.426 seconds. Hamlin knew what she needed to do. It was exactly what she had done the three previous times down the Sanki course. Go fast. Don't make mistakes.
Hamlin's parents knew the same. For two nights, they had counted down each time their daughter crossed the finish line cleanly. Three runs to go. Two runs to go. Now there was just one.
Back at Remsen, the library reverted back and forth between noise and pure silence. When each racer took to the track, no one said a word. When each finished, a flurry of chatter. How does it work? What position is Erin in now? Tell us more stories about her.
When Hamlin pushed off, the room fell silent. Until she crossed the first split and her time was displayed in green, which meant she was leading the competition. At the next split, another green. Then another. And another.
In a span of 50.348 seconds, Hamlin was flawless. When she crossed the finish line, the screen showed green. With two racers to go, she was guaranteed at least a bronze medal. The school erupted.
"It was crazy," said Greg Roos, one of Hamlin's former teachers. "It was total pandemonium for lack of a better word. Kids jumping up and down and screaming. Teachers in tears hugging each other and giving high-fives. Every kid and staff member was there. It was so exhilarating."
Hamlin herself didn't need any colors to know what she had done. She sensed it during her run. History was hers. The first American to win a medal in singles luge. As her sled rolled to a stop in front of her parents, she held her head in her hands. She stood up, ran to her family, grabbed an American flag from her brother and proudly waved it above her head. She blew kisses to her parents, who couldn't hide their emotions.
"She's worked so hard for so long," Eileen said. "This has always been her dream."
"Wow," Ron added.
They couldn't help but think about their little girl who was once scared of roller coasters and alpine slides.
"A slow-to-warm-up kid," Eileen said.
Now that girl was an Olympic medalist. The last two racers of the night, both Germans, did what Germany always does and held their spots in the top two. But Hamlin, her family and a group of friends who made the trip from New York celebrated as if the medal she will receive Wednesday is gold.
"Holy s---!," one of them said to her after the flower ceremony. "You did it. I'm so proud of you."
Hamlin's two teammates were equally ecstatic.
"That girl works so fricking hard," said Kate Hansen, who finished 10th. "She deserves it. She deserves all of it. I couldn't be more happy for her. Usually there's a little bit of jealousy going on, but honestly, I am just so pumped for her. This is so cool."
It was one of those Olympic moments you can never predict. A few weeks ago, most of America had never heard of Erin Hamlin. And even luge junkies overlooked her this week. She hadn't medaled the entire World Cup season and arrived in Sochi the sixth-ranked slider in the world. But then everything changed. Producers from the "Today" show, Ellen DeGeneres and CNN had already called her publicist within hours of her podium finish.
She sensed it might be her week when she turned in strong training times despite not wearing her fastest racing gear.
"And I still went pretty fast," she said. "That's when I was like, 'OK, maybe this could happen.'"
Given the lack of American experience on the podium, it was fitting that when Hamlin sat down for the medal winners' news conference she was a bit puzzled as to the electronic contraption the moderator handed her. It was a translating device with headphones that would allow her to understand any questions that were asked in German.
"Do I leave these on or just take them on and off?" she asked.
The moderator explained she could do whatever she wanted. After bending the plastic headphones to try to place them on her head, she leaned over to silver medalist Tatjana Huefner and confessed, "You'd think they'd get higher-tech headphones for the Olympics."
The moment was bigger than just one young woman finally achieving her Olympic dream. It was a breakthrough for the Americans, who this year worked with Dow Chemicals to re-engineer their sleds, primarily focusing on new runners. The Olympic breakthrough and Hamlin's made-for-television moment will undoubtedly bring new sponsors and greater attention to the often-overlooked sport.
"I didn't want to think about it because I didn't want to send bad vibes, but it will be such a huge boost for us," Hansen said. "It just shows that everything we're doing is obviously working."
The next challenge for Hamlin will be managing the coming days. After her first run on Monday night, her phone began to fill with emails and messages. She shut it off, not wanting the distraction. An hour after she won her bronze medal, she had flipped the phone on but had not yet connected to WiFi to see what might be waiting for her. That was going to happen at some point later Tuesday or Wednesday.
That's when the task of getting back to every single person -- many of whom were in that gym some 5,000 miles away -- will begin.