Sochi’s Hometown Heroes: Erin Hamlin

Erin Hamlin was interviewed on NBC’s TODAY show, twice, and appeared on The Pete Holmes Show, Fox Sports, NBC Sports Network, the Weather Channel and Good Day New York. She attended an Academy Awards viewing party in Hollywood. She was recognized by The Big Bang Theory actress (and William Shatner’s “daughter”) Kaley Cuoco in a Madison Square Garden restroom.

Yet the most overwhelming moment of Hamlin’s post-Olympic celebratory tour was the ride from the Syracuse airport through the back roads of central New York, through the snow and the cold, and the parade down the streets of her 2,000-strong hometown of Remsen, N.Y.

Thousands lined the streets, through the villages and hamlets of Barneveld, Floyd, Holland Patent, Rome, Stittville and Verona, all the way through Remsen. All braving the nighttime temps of 8 degrees, standing by the roadside, with signs, cowbells, whistles — just to wave and welcome home the first American to win a medal in Olympic singles luge competition.

“It was pretty amazing,” Hamlin, the bronze medalist in women’s luge at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games, told over the weekend. “I knew they were planning a homecoming thing. But I didn’t know the extent of it. It was pretty massive.

“Basically they had every fire company from Syracuse to Remsen escort me, with lights all the way home. It literally was a blizzard, and people were lining the streets.

“In Remsen, they put me on a float,” she continued, “and drove me down the main street to my high school where they had a ceremony.”

Oneida County honored her by setting aside Feb. 11, the day she took the bronze in Sochi, as Erin Hamlin Day. She had been honored similarly five years ago when she won the world championship. But this time, the honor will be annual.

She was home for only about 36 hours and then it was off to Hollywood for the InStyle Oscars viewing party with fellow Olympic medalists Maddie Bowman (gold, women’s halfpipe skiing), Kaitlyn Farrington (gold, women’s halfpipe snowboarding) and Devin Logan (silver, women’s slopestyle skiing). There were pictures of Hamlin with actor Ben Affleck.

The gusts of the whirlwind return continued, albeit slower, Saturday night as she dropped the puck for the ceremonial faceoff of the Eastern College Athletic Conference West Division III hockey final in Utica, about 20 minutes south of Remsen.

Now, Hamlin expects — or hopes — the blur will subside as she gets back to schoolwork and her junior year at DeVry University, where she is studying sustainability management.

“I’ve been catching up, a little bit, like getting some sleep back,” she said. “I start school Monday, so I’ve been doing some homework.”

With the luge world cup season finished, Hamlin can look to a relatively calm period, although USA Luge, the sport’s governing body in the United States, may be wise to try to capitalize on her celebrity.

Hamlin’s medal was the fifth in Olympic luge competition for the United States, but the first since 2002 and the first in a singles event. The U.S. took silver and bronze in the men’s doubles in both 1998 and 2002, and 1998 silver medalist Gordy Sheer, now USA Luge’s marketing and sponsorship director, is aware of Hamlin’s value.

He told USA Today that her medal can “raise the profile of the sport. It gives kids someone to aspire to, and it speaks to the strength of what the athletes and coaches are doing.”

Hamlin already has apparently inspired one youngster to follow in her sliding line.

“My cousin’s 4-year-old daughter said she wants to do luge,” Hamlin said. “I don’t think her mother is too keen on that thought.

“It’s an insane thought, that a 4-year-old wants to do this. When I was growing up, it was just something nobody was exposed to.”

Aware that hurtling down an ice chute on your back at 90 mph protected by little more than the equivalent of an insulated skin-tight body suit and a motorcycle helmet is “intimidating,” Hamlin hopes she can demystify luge to an American audience.

“At first glance, most people are intimidated,” she said. “But it’s not as scary as you’re led to believe. If people learn a little more about it, if it gets some more exposure…”

This was the 27-year-old Hamlin’s third Olympic Winter Games since she took up the sport in 1999 after a casting call of sorts by USA Luge. Following a 12th-place finish at the 2006 Winter Games in Torino, Italy, and her world championship in 2009, Hamlin felt the Vancouver Games in 2010 were her best chance for Olympic glory. She finished 16th.

So besides her bronze making the United States only the fifth nation to earn a piece of hardware in Olympic women’s luge (Germany has dominated the sport, winning 31 of the 42 Olympic medals awarded in women’s luge), it surprised Hamlin as well.

“I definitely didn’t expect to come back with a medal,” she said. “I figured Vancouver potentially was my best shot. But coming back to these Games, I worked harder than ever.”

And Hamlin’s not done yet.

“I plan to compete next year,” she said. “I have no plans to retire right away, and then make it a year-to-year decision. Right now, sliding the way I am, it is hard to walk away.”

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