Falconer grad at Olympics as trainer for US luge team
When it was announced Wednesday night that luger Erin Hamlin had been selected as Team USA’s flag bearer for the opening ceremony of the Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, Matt Oakes could hardly contain his glee. In fact, he immediately posted congratulatory messages to his Facebook wall.
“Incredible! Congrats to you, ‘The Great Hamboni,'” he wrote and then tagged Hamlin, the four-time Olympian and Olympic bronze medalist, so she should see it on her Facebook page.
Of course, Oakes could have saved himself the time and greeted Hamlin in person, because the 2001 Falconer Central School graduate is in PyeongChang, too.
Yeah, the kid, who grew up in Ellington and was a member of the the Golden Falcons’ 2000 state championship baseball team, is the head strength athletic trainer for the U.S. luge team, having served the squad in the same role for the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.
“To be part of that is really special,” he said in a phone interview last week from South Korea. “These Olympic athletes that I work with, you get inspired by them. I need to match their dedication and their drive to be better. … Hopefully, my skill set matches just a little bit.”
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Growing up in Ellington, Oakes loved to fish, ride bikes and camp in the woods with his friends, and it was during those formative years that he grew an appreciation for adventure and a desire to one day see the world.
See it he has.
After graduating from Falconer Central, Oakes 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, on and off, ever since.
At Sochi, he was seen on television, walking in the opening ceremony and, later, celebrating with Hamlin after she became the first American, male or female, to earn an Olympic medal in singles luge competition in 50 years when she placed third.
And in the run-up to this year’s Winter Games, Oakes, 34, has again crisscrossed the globe with the luge team, making three trips to South Korea in less than 365 days. Returning there as often as he has holds special personal significance for Oakes, because it signals a return to his native country.
Adopted when he was 3 months old by Al and the late Kwee Eng Oakes, Oakes said he had “always been curious” about where he came from, but he “never really thought about it that much, because I had such a great upbringing. That’s all I knew.”
Kwee Eng Oakes passed away when Oakes was 10 years old. Al eventually remarried and he and his new wife, Cyndi, continued to encourage Oakes to find out about his roots, if he so desired.
“I kind of wrote it off,” he said. “I’m very … happy to have the opportunity to be adopted. Who knows how my life would have ended up if I hadn’t been. … I feel pretty fortunate.”
As of late last week, Oakes hadn’t yet come up with any information on his birth parents, but he intended to absorb himself in the culture “to see what life is for people who I (would) have grown up with if I hadn’t been adopted.”
“I’m just curious,” he added. “If I gather information and something comes of it, that will be amazing and I’ll be grateful.”
Imagine the stories that Oakes could share about his life adventures in the last 34 years?
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The time difference between Jamestown and South Korea is 14 hours. When a reporter talked to Oakes last week just after his arrival in Seoul, it was 4 p.m. local time, but 6 a.m. the next day in the Far East.
“Oh, man, that jet lag is rude,” he said with a laugh.
But don’t get the sense that Oakes is feeling sorry for himself in the least. In reality, he feels pretty good about the luge team’s chances in PyeongChang and his role in all of that.
“We’ve had a good year and we’re fairly healthy,” he said. “Hopefully that tells you I’ve done a fairly good job across the board.”
Across the board or around the world, Oakes seems comfortable, and confident, in all things and in all places. From Ellington to Falconer, and from Sochi to PyeongChang, the man who grew up reading adventure stories, is now living in one in real time.
“I think the most important thing is that if you have an idea, you don’t let it go. You try and do everything you can to make it happen and find the resources to make it happen,” Oakes said. “Just don’t be afraid to try. What’s the worst that can happen? You’re just back to square one.”