PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Ron and Eilleen Hamlin burst into tears when they found out their daughter was going to get one of the greatest honors ever for an athlete.
Last week just before the opening ceremony, four-time Olympian Erin Hamlin was named Team USA flag bearer. The 31-year-old made history four years ago in Sochi when she became the first U.S. athlete to win an Olympic medal for singles luge, and in 2009, she was the first American female luger to win a world championship.
Left to right, Erin Hamlin's brother Sean Hamlin, fiance Jon Hodge and brother Ryan Hamlin at the luge competition.
Hamlin called her parents and told them the good news when they were on their way to the airport headed for South Korea.
“I was crying my eyes out like I always do,” Eilleen said as she leaned against the railing at the Alpensia Sliding Centre Monday night where Erin was competing in the first and second heats of the women’s singles event. “That was up there with getting a medal. It’s your peers voting on you carrying such an important thing. It’s really a big deal. A big deal.”
Hamlin’s honor didn’t come without controversy, however. Her teammates elected her after a coin toss broke a tie between her and speed skater Shani Davis. He posted his frustrations about the whole situation on Twitter.
Hamlin said after the fact she had nothing to do with the process and wasn’t aware of the details.
Ron and Eilleen were of course at the opening ceremony — in the nosebleed seats, they said. It didn’t matter, because they were still able to see Erin lead the USA through the Parade of Nations.
“We had binoculars and followed her the whole way,” Ron said. “She was grinning ear to ear, and I was so proud that she was representing the country and the whole team. It was just very cool.”
Pyeongchang will be Hamlin’s final Olympics. After Monday’s first and second heats in the women’s singles event, she sits in fifth place with an overall time of 1:32.690. German Natalie Geisenberger, who won gold in Sochi, leads the pack at 1:32.454. Hamlin will take her final runs Tuesday night.Erin Hamlin leads the delegation from the United States during the opening ceremony.
JAMES LANG, USA TODAY SPORTS
“Today I started getting butterflies,” Ron said. “Standing here waiting for her to start because she was first (in the first heat), just thinking about it. After this it’s all done.”
The Hamlins were out in force on Monday and will be back in the front row on Tuesday. There was Ron and Eilleen, both dressed five layers deep in their red, white and blue best. Erin’s brothers Ryan and Sean and her fiancé Jon Hodge wore suits that if they lined up just right, they looked like the American flag.
The family is well known around the sport. They created the popular “Luge Hooch” drink, which is half Bailey’s, half Jameson that is beloved among the U.S. luge family in Pyeongchang and sipped through a plastic flask. They joked it helps keep them warm in the sub-zero temperatures. Monday night it dipped to 10 degrees during competition with a wind chill of minus 6. Apparently the Luge Hooch goes well with hot chocolate.
But it’s not just that, watch luge for two minutes and it’s clear the Hamlins are the heart of the sport here. Eilleen led chants not just for the USA., but started “CAN-A-DA!” when Kimberly McRae was getting ready to make her run. And when Canadian Alex Gaugh went down the track, Hamlin turned around, found her mom and shouted, “Yay Alex’s mom!” They cheer for nearly every country’s competitors. The sliding world is a tight-knit community because they see each other at events year-round around the world.
Eilleen and fellow moms Sue Sweeney (Emily is on the women’s team) and Marty Mazdzer (son Chris won a silver medal in men’s singles on Sunday) have an active Twitter account called Luge Moms, too. They want to invite other moms to join to tweet about their experiences, but no one remembers the password.
South Korea is Erin Hamlin’s farewell tour and her family is proudly following along. Once she’s officially retired, younger lugers and their families will surely pick up where the Hamlins leave off.
Before that, the goal of course is to win another medal and she’s in position to break the race open in the third and fourth heats on Tuesday.
Then when it's over, there will probably be more tears.
“We didn’t know it would all lead to this — never in a million years,” Eilleen said. “She’s done a lot of history-making things and I think that’s what I like most about it.
“She’s had a good career and she’s ready to retire."