October 16, 2018

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Olympian Erin Hamlin Marries a Childhood Playmate

Olympian Erin Hamlin Marries a Childhood Playmate
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Jonathan Hodge has a reputation for pulling off small miracles on the basketball court. But the miracle he’s proudest of — sweeping four-time Olympian Erin Hamlin off her feet — lends itself less to repeat viewings by his core audience of hoops fanatics and goggle-eyed Minnesota schoolchildren.

Mr. Hodge, 33, a physical education teacher and assistant high school basketball coach in Barnesville, Minn., met Ms. Hamlin, 31, when he was 9 and she was 8, in the summer of 1994. He knew even then she was his kind of girl.

“I didn’t chase her into the sandbox or anything,” he said. “But I’m pretty sure I had the hots for her.” They were forced playmates. Mr. Hodge’s father, Bruce, an electrician, was wiring a house in a forestlike 100-acre property in Remsen, N.Y., being built by Ms. Hamlin’s parents, Ron and Eilleen. Mr. Hodge and his sister, Jennifer, often tagged along.

Their presence on the Hamlin property wasn’t unusual. In addition to being the Hamlins’ electrician, Bruce was Ron’s volleyball buddy in a local adult league.

Like their fathers, Ms. Hamlin, Mr. Hodge and their siblings fell into playing together. “There was no finished house to play in, so we’d spend a lot of time outside, making forts and playing in trees,” Ms. Hamlin said.

But that fall, the Hodge siblings left for school in Minnesota where, since their parents’ divorce in 1993, they lived with their mother, Kristie Tweeton Hodge. The forest playmates forgot each other. And even though Mr. Hodge and Jennifer returned to Remsen every summer, they never reconnected with Ms. Hamlin as children. Mr. Hodge eventually graduated from Barnesville High School in 2003 and set out to earn his teaching degree. By then, Ms. Hamlin was on her way to becoming the first American to medal in the singles competition in luge, a sport still mystifying to many Americans.

Lugers lie on their backs while sledding down icy tracks up to 90 miles per hour with no brakes. Ms. Hamlin started when she was 12. Her father, who goes by the nickname Fella, was an engineer at Verizon, then one of the Olympic team’s sponsors. He saw a flier at work offering children a chance to try the sport in nearby Syracuse and thought his sporty daughter might be interested.

“It seemed like something different, but I had no idea what I was getting myself into,” said Ms. Hamlin, who competed in her final Olympics this year and was the flag bearer for the opening ceremony.

On her first try in 1998, she wasn’t a natural, she said. By the time she was a junior at Remsen High School, she was still what she called “middle of the pack.” But by 2006, when she was 20, she represented the United States in the Olympics in Torino, Italy.

Half a world away in Minnesota, Mr. Hodge was having flashbacks. Though he wasn’t a luge enthusiast, he heard about Ms. Hamlin’s ascent to the Olympics from relatives in Remsen and remembered her from their fort-making days. From afar, he started following her athletic career.

“I’m a pretty big sports fan in general,” said Mr. Hodge, the basketball wizard behind a series of YouTube videos called “Trick Shot Friday,” in which he performs stunts like shooting baskets off a trampoline. The origins of “Trick Shot Friday” are with his elementary school students, who challenged him his first year as a phys-ed teacher to shoot from half court one Friday afternoon. That shot landed and he kept up the tradition, getting more creative with his stunts by the year. Last year, a “Trick Shot Friday” excerpt landed on “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” With Pepsi and We Are Teachers, a site for educators, he recently released “Trick Shot Recycling” to promote recycling.

He is not quite the celebrated athlete Ms. Hamlin is, though. In Sochi in 2014, she won the singles bronze medal, becoming the first American of either gender to medal in a singles race and the first American woman luger to medal in any winter games.

If she hadn’t, she might never have reunited with Mr. Hodge.

Three months after earning her Olympic titles, she accepted a request to be the commencement speaker for Remsen High’s class of 2014. Mr. Hodge’s cousin, Spencer Lennon, was among the graduates.

“My sister and I were sitting in the stands, and we were like, ‘Oh, that’s Erin Hamlin.’” Mr. Hodge said. “I was intrigued by her speech. It was about dreaming big and had a sky’s-the-limit type message, but it wasn’t clichéd. Plus she was super attractive. I was really into it.” Later, in a twist that seemed too good to be true, Ms. Hamlin came with her parents, who were still friendly with the Hodges, to Mr. Lennon’s backyard graduation party. Mr. Hodge was starry eyed.

“He went in for a handshake, but I’m a hugger, so I guess I made the first move,” Ms. Hamlin said. The hug emboldened Mr. Hodge. “After I got that hug I went from nervous to python mode,” he said. “I was like, O.K., sweet. I’m going to step up the connect.” He asked her to be his teammate in a Frisbee game called KanJam. That, both say, is when the flirting started.

Despite being in python mode, Mr. Hodge was too nervous to ask for Ms. Hamlin’s number when the night wound down. So he mentioned a street party in Utica happening later that week. “I had very little game. I was just wishing on a star,” he said.

But the wish came true. In Utica, “we talked a ton and basically caught up on 20 years,” Ms. Hamlin said. By the end of the night, Mr. Hodge told Jennifer she would be flying back to Minnesota alone.

“Jenny was like, ‘You’re nuts,’” Mr. Hodge said. But he stayed in New York anyway. When he left two weeks later to resume his P.E. classes, it was with an agreement from Ms. Hamlin that they would learn to navigate a long-distance relationship. They had their own cheering squad in the endeavor.

“My dad was so happy,” Mr. Hodge said. “He was like, ‘You’re going to mess this up.’ What he meant was, O.K., prove me wrong.” Fella Hamlin was also rooting for them. “He thought it was sweet that his daughter was with his buddy’s son,” Ms. Hamlin said. And Spencer Lennon’s mother, Stephanie Lennon, knew as early as the KanJam game in her back yard that it was meant to be. “I had never seen Jon that in awe. We all wanted it to work out,” she said.

Ms. Hamlin and Mr. Hodge were so in love they didn’t need the familial encouragement, though. Since the fall of 2014 they have made a practice of not letting more than eight weeks pass without a visit. And they talk at length daily. “People ask me all the time, How do you guys do the long-distance thing?” Mr. Hodge said. “But at the end of the day I want to be with her. So it’s not hard, it’s necessary.”

Summers together in Remsen have been especially hardship-free, with the exception of last summer, when Mr. Hodge was struggling with how to propose. By July 4, he found what he called a “low-profile” ring at Lennon’s Jewelry Shop, owned by Mr. Lennon’s uncle, in New Hartford, N.Y. (“I knew she didn’t want anything sticking high off her hand because of her lifestyle,” he said. “It was kind of a safety protocol.”) By July 12, he had the ring in his pocket. But he still hadn’t come up with the perfect way to ask Ms. Hamlin to be his wife.

Breakfast provided inspiration. Early in their relationship, Mr. Hodge found a box of Cheerios in Ms. Hamlin’s car. They commiserated over having the kind of parents who never let them eat sugary cereal before Mr. Hodge, on an ice cream outing, threw a handful into his cup for crunch. Cheerios became a staple in the cupboard of the Remsen apartment they share each summer.

So is peanut butter, but only because Mr. Hodge can’t live without it. On the afternoon of July 17, while Ms. Hamlin was at the gym, he sent her a text: “Forgot to buy peanut butter. Can you pick some up?”

The ploy to buy some extra time worked: When Ms. Hamlin arrived home, Mr. Hodge had spelled the words “Will you marry me?” in tiny oat circles up a staircase lit with tea candles.

“I was crouching behind a door, waiting for her to get up the stairs. I was like, ‘Hurry up!,’” he said. When she opened the door and found him, he was on one knee, ring in hand. Ms. Hamlin’s reply to the question “Will you marry me?” was, “For real?”

“We were both kind of shaking — It’s hard to remember because it was such a massive moment,” Mr. Hodge said. At some point, though, “yes” was uttered.

On July 28, in Fella and Eilleen Hamlin’s still woodsy, sprawling back yard, the couple was married before 300 guests by Mr. Hodge’s college friend Brian Boettcher, who was ordained though American Marriage Ministries. Ms. Hamlin wore a beaded, floor-length white dress with spaghetti straps from Anthropologie’s BHLDN line and her hair in a long French braid; Mr. Hodge wore a gray linen suit.

Ms. Hamlin, who had lost a game of rock, paper, scissors to Mr. Hodge earlier and had to read her handwritten vows second, said she never fathomed she would marry the boy she met in just that spot more than 20 years earlier. “But the universe had a plan,” she said.

Mr. Hodge, who had read his vows first, had to pause twice to gather himself. He promised to always match or exceed Ms. Hamlin’s sense of adventure. Then he said, “every day away from you was worth every second. Today I’m the luckiest dude in the world.”

ON THIS DAY

When July 28, 2018.

Where Remsen, N.Y.

The Next Race Ms. Hamlin retired from the luge after the 2018 Olympics. To help raise money for the Women’s Sports Foundation, she is now training for the New York City marathon. After she completes some speaking obligations, she plans to take time to focus on her next career.

Their Next Home Ms. Hamlin and Mr. Hodge have not yet decided where they will permanently reside. For the short-term, they will remain in separate states. “Since he has a solid job and a great thing going, we’re going to stick with that for now,” she said, “until the right opportunity presents itself.”

All Aboard The train tracks of the Adirondack Railroad run by the Hamlin’s property. Hours before the wedding, the couple took a train from Utica. Mr. Hodge and his five groomsmen, two “best gents” and a junior groomsman were in one car. Ms. Hamlin and her five bridesmaids, maid of honor and a junior bridesmaid were in another. The train conductor hit the brakes at the Hamlin property and dropped the party off at the wedding site.

No Cheerios Holy Smoques BBQ, a food truck, was on site and provided catering. Two 250-pound pigs were apple-wood smoked for the hungry guests, who milled around before dinner sipping Utica Club beer during a cocktail hour. At 10 p.m., after dinner and dancing, a mac and cheese bar provided a late night snack.

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