SOCHI, Russia — One day in the winter of 2009, after Erin Hamlin had won the world championship in women’s luge, she got a frantic telephone message from her younger brother, Sean.
“I got this emergency message, saying I had to call,” Hamlin said Wednesday. “I was nervous. I thought something bad had happened.”
There was no great emergency. Sean was working in The Soda Fountain, the ’50s-style restaurant in their hometown of Remsen, N.Y. The mayor’s wife thought it would be a great idea to name a sundae in Erin’s honor.
“What would you put in it?” Sean asked his sister.
Erin decided on a World Champion concoction with vanilla ice cream, peanut butter, hot fudge, Oreos and whipped cream. It was a big hit, of course.
Of course, where Remsen is concerned, nothing is too good – or too sweet, apparently – for Hamlin, their local pride and joy, the biggest thing in a very small town. Remsen, which is located 20 miles north of Utica in the Adirondack foothills, has roughly 1,900 residents.
Most everyone in town has supported her luge career in some way. They sold $1 buttons and $10 18x24 signs. They’ve held auctions and pancake breakfasts and other fundraisers. The General Store website advertises signs, posters and Pilsner glasses (sorry, the glasses are sold out).
They’ve hung “Go Erin Hamlin” signs all over town, on buildings, on the railroad trestle, on the water tower and at the golf course. On Tuesday, the students at the Remsen Junior/Senior High got a long break so they could gather in the library with teachers to follow her in Sochi.
You see, Hamlin’s big moment had finally arrived. After the first two runs, she was in third place halfway through the women’s luge – for the uninitiated, a sport where you lie face-up on a 50-pound sled that zooms down an icy track at speeds up to 87 mph.
So with the people watching back home (and her parents, Ron and Eileen, watching anxiously here in person), Hamlin did it. She held on to third place and won a bronze medal – the first singles medal for an American in the 50-year history of Olympic luge.
“I know there were a lot of happy people around Central New York,” Eileen Hamlin said after Erin’s medal ceremony Wednesday night in Sochi. “We were able to FaceTime them a little bit and talk with them during different parties. So far, everybody’s pretty psyched.”
Hamlin had a combined time of 3:21.145 for her four runs. She was remarkably consistent, with all four of her times falling between 50.16 and 50.36. Predictably, Germans Natalie Geisenberger and Tatjana Huefner won gold and silver. Germany has won roughly two-thirds of all the medals since luge became an Olympic sport in 1964.
Finally, the folks in Remsen got a chance to celebrate. Word is, the scene at the school was pandemonium. It’s funny how things work. Four years ago, after the world title, Hamlin was viewed as a medal contender in Vancouver. Sliding on a course that had been redrawn after the death of Georgian Nodar Kumaritashvili on a practice run, she finished 12th.
Hamlin arrived at her third Olympics below the radar – whatever radar exists for luge, anyway. Most of the American press corps was looking the other way, at a faltering Shaun White, when she won the historic medal on Tuesday night. Hamlin had not finished in the top three all season in World Cup races.
“This year, I felt close to zero pressure, to be honest,” said Hamlin, 27. “Whether it was from the fact that luge isn’t very popular, I don’t know. But I felt really good. Last time, because I won worlds, I think it got a little more attention. I came in thinking I’d be excited if I had my best winter result, which would have been top 12.
“I didn’t feel the hopes and dreams of a country were riding on my back,” she said. “So it was really nice to be able to go in for myself and for my family and my community from home. Everybody supported me.
“I knew that no matter what happened, they were still going to be thrilled when I came home, even if I came in last.”
Hamlin, who was 12th in the 2006 Games in Turin, was mentally and physically prepared for this Olympics. The U.S. luge team had worked out on the track at the Sanki Sliding Center three times for a total of five weeks in the previous 15 months. She keeps details on tracks in a journal. She was familiar with the nuances of Sanki.
She also benefited from some technical tweaks on her sled. The U.S. luge team worked with Dow Chemical to make some subtle changes that added speed. So all in all, Hamlin felt at ease heading into these Olympics, ready to have fun.
“The biggest thing was, my mindset was great,” Hamlin said. “I had no expectations on myself, really. It was third time at the Games, so I’ve kind of hit both ends of the spectrum. I just wanted to nail four solid runs and enjoy myself. That put me in a good place.”
She said it will be awhile before the reality of her success sinks in. Hamlin is also entered in the team relay, which is being held in the Olympics for the first time. She won a World Cup silver in the relay in December in Germany.
But it took no time for her fame to hit back in the States. Her publicist has already received requests from “Today,” Ellen DeGeneres and CNN for interviews. With many of the big-name Americans struggling for medals in Russia, fame beckons for the obscure.
They didn’t wait back home, either. When Hamlin won bronze, the townspeople held an impromptu parade down Main Street in Remsen. Hamlin was asked if she expected other things to be named in her honor.
“It would be crazy if they started naming things after me all over the place,” she said with a laugh. “It’s a very, very small town, so there aren’t very many options for streets or parks to name. It would be an honor, I guess, but it would be kind of funny going home and seeing my name on street signs.
“I wish there were moves in luge, like a trick,” she said. “But we don’t have those. Maybe a curve on a course; that would be awesome.”
Well, there’s still the sundae, which is still on the menu at The Soda Fountain and surely doing a thriving business now.
“Yes, it still exists,” she said. “I’ve had people send me pictures of them celebrating by eating one, which looked really good.”
You might say the bronze medal is the cherry on top.