America's first athlete to win a medal in singles luge was treated to a homecoming fit for a hero last night. Erin Hamlin's thrilling runs on the luge track in Sochi, Russia earned her the bronze.
After interviews, celebrity appearances, and photo shoots in New York City this week, Hamlin touched down at the Syracuse airport. A police escort and fire trucks guided her past miles of cheering crowds to the tiny town of Remsen in the foothills of the southern Adirondacks.
Single digit temperatures and lake effect snows couldn’t keep what seems like the whole town away from Remsen’s main street.
Donna Hamilton is warming up her bullhorn while staying warm in a pickup. "Go, Erin! Yeah, Erin! We’re so proud of you, Erin!" she shouts. She and Carol Blystone were Erin Hamlin’s bus drivers ever since kindergarten.
"Always a beautiful girl," says Blystone of Hamlin. "It’s so close to home. It really is because we’ve known her growing up all these years, and the family as well, and the family is as beautiful as she is."
These are the people in Erin Hamlin’s neighborhood here in Remsen, population 1,900. Her brother worked at The Soda Fountain, a 1950s themed ice cream shop where you can order Erin’s own creation, the Erin Hamlin Sundae.
Owner Lynn Boucher, who weaves around ladies in signed Erin Hamlin sweatshirts and TV crews setting up live shots, supplies the recipe, "Vanilla ice cream with peanut butter, hot fudge, oreos, and peanut butter cups with whipped cream and a cherry."
"It couldn’t have happened to a nicer person," Boucher adds, "and it couldn’t have happened to a nicer family. And after she won, they’re just as nice, just as down-to-earth as they were before."
It hasn’t been an easy road for the Hamlins. After Erin won the World Luge Championship in Lake Placid in 2009, she finished a disappointing 16th at the Vancouver games in 2010. Just two days after qualifying for these Sochi games, Hamlin’s grandmother was killed in a car accident.
But Hamlin’s mother, Eileen, says Erin went to Sochi intensely focused and nailed a near-flawless first run.
"When she came down in second place after that first run, we were pretty much in 'luge shock' saying, 'oh my god, she’s just got to hold on. She’s got to keep it clean.' And four consecutive runs, she did it. It was unbelievable."
Eileen Hamlin is the school nurse in Remsen. The kids at school watched Hamlin speed down the icy track together in the library.
High school juniors Joleen Marfone and Theresa Roberts say, "We cheered. We all cheered. Cried, cheered, teachers were all crying. Yeah, I did, I broke a tear."
Outside with friends and wrapped in American flags they awaited their hero and sang, "God bless Erin Hamlin, our hometown girl!"
With police escort sirens flashing and snow falling, Erin Hamlin waves aboard her float, bronze medal glinting around her neck. Then everybody runs inside for a rally in the school gym.
"Remsen’s own, Erin Hamlin!" the announcer proclaims. Hundreds of people chant "USA, USA!" There are gifts and speeches from politicians. State Senator Joe Griffo and Assemblyman Ken Blankenbush invite Erin to the legislative chambers. She’s made an honorary deputy by the Oneida County sheriff. Then, the Olympic slider takes the microphone with a warm and confident smile.
"Just growing up here and having everyone in this community and surrounding area support me for the last 14 years, no matter how well I did or how terrible I did, has been amazing, and I can’t imagine a better group of people to come home and share this with," Hamlin tells the cheering crowd.
Remsen is like any North Country town. Everyone knows each other. There are plenty of hard times with the good times. Except now Remsen has an Olympic medalist, one who could bring new attention, money, and victories to her sport.
And it’s making people in Remsen believe.
Sixth graders Kristen Waterbury and Sidney Boucher carry around a homemade “Welcome Home Erin” poster signed by all their classmates.
Waterbury says, "She blows us all away with getting a bronze." "It makes you dream so far, Boucher says. "It makes you want to get your goals. It makes you want to succeed everything you dreamed for."
On this night, Remsen feels better than gold. It’s got bronze.