Second String: The real Kate Hansen smiles, shines through
La Cañada Flintridge's Kate Hansen made quite an impact at the Winter Games, both on and off the sled, and returned home to a hero's welcome. (Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images)
-Excerpt from Feb. 5 ‘Second String’
Upon sports’ grandest and most majestic stage, myriad images of Kate Hansen resonated.
She smiled, she danced, she pranked and, of course, she luged.
In other words, as the Winter Olympics played out in Sochi, Russia and before our eyes, Kate Hansen was herself.
“I had so much fun. It was so cool to be a team with all the other U.S. athletes, to just be united,” Hansen said on a Monday shortly after her return stateside following the Olympics and a subsequent trip to Spain. “Just to feel like a member of Team USA, that was the coolest part.”
In many ways, Hansen’s Olympic run was memorable because an audience was able to see Kate being Kate. True to form, it’s a phenomenon she’s still trying to figure out.
“I don’t think Kate really understood what was going on,” her mom, Kathie, said. “She would just say, ‘That’s just what I do.’”
On a sunny Southern California afternoon, as Kate looked back across the globe to a month prior, it’s abundantly clear that she soaked up every second of fulfilling an Olympic dream that she was obviously wide awake to experience.
Even her arrival in Sochi was memorable.
“Coolest day of my life – easily. That was so much fun,” said Hansen of all the free swag and all-star treatment bestowed upon her and her teammates upon their arrival. “I wasn’t expecting so much. It was very overwhelming.”
Then came the Opening Ceremonies. And while sports are often arduous to prognosticate, the ceremonies went exactly as Hansen predicted, as a camera shot captured her teammates shouting “USA!” while she smiled and wiped away tears.
“I was bawling the whole time. It was very emotional,” Hansen said. “It was something that I’d wanted for my whole life.”
“That was … definitely one of the biggest highlights.”
Above all the pomp and circumstance, though, Hansen and her teammates were there to slide, of course.
Following her winning a World Cup event and becoming the first American in 17 years to do so, Hansen turned in a 10th-place performance, while teammate and friend Erin Hamlin made history by taking home a bronze medal — the first American, male or female, to win a medal in singles luge.
Along the way, though, Hansen exploded in popularity and notoriety as NBC Sports aired video of her dancing to warm up before her luge runs.
“I guess [people] think it’s different, but everybody who knows me, knows it’s something I’ve always done,” Hansen said.
Gordy Sheer, Team USA Luge’s marking director, was one of many who’d seen it time and again.
“I was aware of that portion of her warm-up,” Sheer said. “That’s obviously not the only part of her warm-up.”
Sheer was quick to point out it’s just a portion of Hansen’s warm-up. Her more fundamental and traditional routine? Well, that wasn’t really given all that much play.
At least one person vocally and publicly took exception to Hansen’s pre-luge pop and lock and that was Duncan Kennedy, an NBC Sports color commentator and former Olympic luger for Team USA, who said he’d rather see more a more traditional workout that was more suited for preparation.
Of course, you don’t tug on Superman’s cape, you don’t put Baby in a corner and apparently you don’t tell Kate she can’t dance. Kennedy got his share of backlash from the burgeoning number of fans in support of Kate. Kate, however, never held any ill will toward Kennedy, who was actually one of her past coaches.
“I’m really close with DK. He was one of the first coaches I ever had,” Hansen said. “I just laughed. I’m not surprised he said that at all. I wasn’t offended at all. It wasn’t a big deal.”
It was, though, evidence that though people were getting a glimpse of who Kate Hansen is, they weren’t getting the whole picture.
Not long after luge had come and gone, Hansen gained further acclaim — and controversy — when she allowed “The Jimmy Kimmel Show” to access her Twitter account and post a 17-second video clip of a wolf seemingly roaming the halls outside Hansen’s Olympics dorm room. It caught fire and was reported by news outlets — mostly television news and websites without any verification. In the end, it was all just a prank, as Kimmel explained, along with Hansen, who was on the late night show live via Skype.
“They got really upset,” Hansen said of Olympics officials. “I got threatened that I would get sent home. They told me I wouldn’t be able to walk in the closing ceremonies.
“Everyone within the Olympics was upset. Everyone outside of them, thought it was hilarious.”
In the end, those who were upset voiced concerns about it manifesting a negative image of the Sochi Games, creating a security tizzy and bringing up questions of legitimacy issues.
All valid I suppose. It was also pretty funny. It was also pretty silly that people could fathom a wolf could gain access to an Olympics dorm room and that “journalists” in this day and age take Twitter accounts as gospel.
“When I saw it, I thought, ‘There’s no way, we couldn’t even get in to see her,’” Kathie said. “She’s just so happy-go-lucky; she doesn’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings. I wasn’t able to laugh right after, but I think we’ll be able to laugh later.”
No matter the stance, Hansen’s popularity coupled with Hamlin’s success have seemingly brought luge to a standpoint often unseen for the sport.
“In terms of getting the sport out there, this was a great Olympics,” Sheer said, “and the women were obviously a big part of it.”
Alas, Hansen didn’t go to the Olympics with an agenda to become any kind of media darling.
“I didn’t come to the Olympics to get famous on social media for dancing,” said Hansen, who had less than 500 Twitter followers before the Olympics and now sits at 24,000, admitting she still doesn’t know how to handle all the attention. “I came to compete.”
Anyone who thinks the contrary is simply wrong. In many ways, Kate became a star because people got to know her. But for those who have had the pleasure to truly talk with her and get to really know her, even at a preliminary level, you realize she’s not somebody defined by some dance moves.
In the winter wonderland that is the wide world of the Winter Olympics, tales of human interest and medal glory are abundant. But in the aftermath, unless you’re a men’s hockey player or figure skater, in most instances, the limelight and attention is fleeting.
For Hansen, it’s still going strong. Whether it stays, who knows? That’s not why she trained 11 years, incurred a daunting schedule and competed with broken bones. She did it to realize an Olympic dream. That’s why little kids are lining up to get an autograph and calling her a role model and an inspiration.
Now? Who knows what’s next?
Kate’s only 21, after all, and like most people her age, has her whole life in front of her.
Will it include a return trip to the 2018 Games?
“Tenth place at your first Olympics is nothing to scoff at,” Sheer said. “She’s got a lot of potential. She’s a strong slider. She’s a strong athlete. With a lot of hard work, I certainly believe she could be in Pyeongchang, South Korea [for the 2018 Winter Olympics].”
For now, after all the media appearances have died down, she’ll return to school at Brigham Young University and when luge camp rolls around after that, she said that’s when she’ll make her decision. She’s still humble enough to believe she’ll just blend in.
“I shouldn’t flatter myself and think that I’ll go back to school and people will recognize me,” Hansen said. “I don’t think anything will change.”
You get the sense she believes that because she hasn’t changed, even in the glow of the spotlight.
Just a few weeks before the Winter Olympics commenced, I met Kate Hansen for the first time – which is to say I spoke to her over the phone for half an hour when she was half a world away in Germany.
I knew even less about her than I did about luge, admittedly. It didn’t take long to get a sense of who she was, though. It’s likely because she’s as honest as she is humble, as happy as she is determined.
Kate Hansen has been on a journey aboard a luge sled for 11 years now. Luckily for us, she took us along with her, even if we are just catching up with her over these last few months.
There are no certainties as for her future with luge, the Olympics or where this journey will ultimately go.
But at the end, Kate will be Kate. Maybe she’ll luge, maybe she’ll prank, but she’ll most assuredly dance as she always has and she’ll most certainly smile along the way.
That’s just the way I see it, playing second string.