Ellington native part of Olympic history
Sitting in a doctor’s office with my mom on Jamestown’s westside Tuesday afternoon, I scanned Facebook posts on my iPhone to pass the time until I came across one – accompanied by a photo – on the wall belonging to Ellington native Matt Oakes.
”Erin Hamlin and her family celebrating a lifetime of hard work!! #teamusa #usaluge #Sochi2014.”
Although I was in the midst of an unintentional news blackout for most of the day, I immediately knew what Oakes was referencing.
Hamlin, who grew up in Remsen, N.Y., a town at the foothills of the Adirondacks, had made headlines yesterday by becoming the first American, male or female, to earn an Olympic medal in singles luge competition when she placed third.
That’s a dryspell that stood for 50 years.
I immediately sent Matt, a 2001 Falconer Central School graduate, a congratulatory Facebook message.
”Way to make your hometown proud,” I typed.
Minutes later, I received a response.
”Thanks. It’s an amazing realization for Erin,” Matt wrote. ”Erin is the one to congratulate. I’m only a tiny part of her success. But thank you for the praise. I’m just glad I could help her.”
Matt is the senior national team athletic trainer for USA Luge and he’s been at the Winter Games in Sochi, Russia – after months trotting the globe with the luge athletes – for a relatively short time.
From the sounds of it, though, he has stories to last a lifetime.
”You can call me now if you want,” Matt wrote. ”I’m free for a bit before bed.”
I looked at the clock in the doctor’s office.
It read 3:15 p.m., which meant it was 12:15 a.m., Wednesday in Sochi.
”Give me 10 minutes,” I punched into my phone.
My mom’s appointment complete, I dropped her off at her apartment a short drive away and headed to The Post-Journal.
I sat down at the my desk and punched Matt’s cell number into my iPhone.
Credentials to participate in the Winter Games’ opening ceremonies are hard to come by and are reserved almost exclusively for the participating athletes.
Outside of that, only a team leader who is assigned to accompany each discipline gets to join the festivities. For the U.S. luge team, Matt expected that ”leader” to be U.S. coach Mark Grimmette, a five-time Olympian and two-time luge doubles medalist.
But Grimmette said that if there was an extra pass, ”he’d be happy to let me go,” Matt said.
An extra ceremonies credential was found.
Matt was in.
”I was standing with the team physician (in the lobby of the team’s living quarters) and I said, ‘We’re actually doing this, we’re going to the opening ceremonies,”’ Oakes recalled. ”To see all these Olympians standing around … with everyone wearing the same outfit – as scary an outfit as it was – and … everyone was abuzz. It was pretty wild. I’d never been a part of that much energy and excitement.”
As he waited, Matt had his photo taken with skier Bode Miller and speedskater Shani Davis, among others. And by the end of the ceremonies, Matt’s image had been captured on network TV, much to the delight of his many friends who showed their support on his Facebook wall.
”Just saw Matt Oakes on TV again,” wrote one pal. ”NBC just did a special about the Olympic villages and when they talked about the mountain village and the lugers. He was in the shot. Way to go Matt. You are the man!”
”I can’t believe that Matt Oakes is all over the Olympics right now,” wrote another. ”I love it.”
And finally this gem: ”Dude, I just saw you on TV!! They focused the camera on you for a grin and thumbs-up at the men’s singles!!”
”Once we were formally going (into the stadium),” Matt said, ”you realize this isn’t just some weird dream.”
After graduating from Falconer Central, Matt eventually received degrees from Alfred University (2005) and SUNY Cortland (2011). He joined the U.S. luge team as its trainer in October 2012 and has traveled the world with the squad ever since.
In addition to administering treatment to the athletes, Matt has served as their chauffeur, videographer, strength and conditioning supervisor and nutrition specialist. On Tuesday in Sochi, though, he was simply among the U.S. women’s biggest fans, joining the rest of the luge team and support staff as Hamlin made her final run.
”She needed to come down in 50.77 seconds to stay ahead of (Canada’s Alex Gough),” Matt said. ”We were just kind of anxiously waiting for her to make it down and everyone was kind of holding their breath.”
When Hamlin crossed the finish line, she realized she had secured a medal and thrust her arms toward the heavens and briefly covered her face. Later, she posed with Matt for a photograph, which, not surprisingly, also ended up on his Facebook wall for all to see.
”It’s pretty surreal,” Matt admitted during our phone conversation later Tuesday.
Who says dreams can’t come true?