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20TH WINTER OLYMPIC GAMES | COMMENTARY

To This Family, Mayer Is No Hometown Hero

February 15, 2006|Shaun Powell | Newsday

TURIN, Italy — More than a few people watching back home in Buffalo, N.Y., will root for him tonight at the Olympics, just as they did four years ago, when Travis Mayer skied through a maze of bumpy moguls and performed some neat aerial tricks and brought home the silver medal.

Bob Hamblin remembers sitting with his wife, Diane, then, telling her that this was the Mayer kid whose family lived not far away. The Hamblins cheered and swelled with a sense of local pride when Mayer stood on the victory platform in Salt Lake City.

"It was nice to see someone from around here win a medal," Hamblin said. "After that, we'd totally forgotten about him."

Until last June 21. Until Diane Hamblin, driving the 1974 Dodge Dart that her husband had rebuilt for her while they were high school sweethearts, took her usual way home along Route 78. Until Mayer, approaching from Hunter's Creek Road, drove past the stop sign and through the intersection at what investigators later concluded was a legal speed.

Until Mayer sideswiped the Dodge Dart, sending it careening into a field, killing a 44-year-old mother of two.

"The other day, one of the stations did a story on him," Bob Hamblin said. "There was Travis on TV, talking about going to the Olympics in Italy. And I'm sitting down and watching them go on and on about this local hero and how he's overcome this tragedy and blah, blah, blah. And I'm saying to myself, 'You've got to be kidding me.'

"I'm sorry. He's the one who caused this tragedy. The people who can't overcome this tragedy is us."

There is indeed something wrong when an athlete who caused the death of an innocent woman suddenly is just a good ski race away from being applauded by an entire country. Somehow, it just doesn't seem right, doesn't seem proper, doesn't seem fair to the real victims, the Hamblins.

Mayer certainly is free to resume his life as he chooses. Yet even that's a sensitive issue: He wasn't charged with a crime. He's not locked up. He walked away from the collision with a citation for failing to yield, the same sort of slap on a wrist given to jaywalkers.

"All I know," a bitter widower said, "is that had it been you or me driving that car, we wouldn't be able to go about life as normal."

There was a news conference here this week for the skiers who'll represent the United States in the freestyle moguls. Everyone showed except one of the favorites for the gold.

Mayer chose not to speak. He chose not to explain how and why a sober 23-year-old honors student from Cornell refused to apply the brakes last June on a day that he'll never forget, or to elaborate on his only public remark about the incident: "There's not a day that goes by that I don't deal with it."

A distraught family back home still is waiting for clarity itself.

"We have a hard time calling it an accident," Hamblin said. "An accident is mechanical or weather-related. Well, this happened in the summertime, on a clear day. So it wasn't that. It was stupidity."

Was this a case of a decorated athlete stubbornly refusing to live by the same rules as the rest of us? Was the simple act of stopping at an intersection beneath him? Or did he just fail to see the sign?

Hamblin dismisses that last excuse.

"I personally have taken people to the intersection and deliberately not told them about it," he said. "I sat in the passenger seat and let them drive, just to see what would happen. And you know what? Not one person missed the stop sign. Not one."

In a sense, Mayer became a world-class skier by traveling the way he did along Hunter's Creek Road: without stopping.

He already was a regular on skis not long after starting grade school and was competing by the time he turned 6. He successfully juggled school and skiing and came from a respected family that has operated a cider and bottled-water business for more than 100 years.

Not long ago, during his climb as an international skier, he said, "The lessons I've learned from skiing, I can directly apply to the other aspects of my life."

In her own way, Diane Hamblin was equally productive. She created and built a home-decorating business, drawing clients from all over upstate New York, devising ideas to fit all sorts of budgets.

"She was a genuine person who could get along with anybody, and that helped her in her business," her husband said. "It didn't matter if she was wallpapering someone's trailer home or fixing up a million-dollar home. She treated everyone with the same respect."

Most important, she raised her 9-year-old daughter and a 4-year-old son and remained devoted to the man she'd known almost her entire life.

"My wife gave 100% in everything she did," Hamblin said. "Her work, her children, her family and her friends."

She also shared with her husband a passion for classic cars. They owned six. Among her favorites was the Dodge, partly because it took her back to high school and a guy she began dating in 1979.

It also took her back and forth from work and, unfortunately, down Route 78 on the last day of her life.

What bothers Bob Hamblin is how, after the fateful collision, he never heard from Mayer. He received a card only from Mayer's mother, who wrote how the incident shattered two families. Finally one day, tired of waiting, Hamblin dialed Travis. They spoke for 45 minutes.

"He wasn't man enough to call me," Hamblin said. "I told him that when I spoke to him. And he still wouldn't come clean about what happened. I asked him, 'Where was your head?' He did apologize several times over. But I thought it was my duty to tell him about the life he took, and how what he did was inexcusable."

Mayer is back on skis, back on track to grab another medal, back in the Olympics to reclaim the glory he felt four years ago.

Once again, just like before, lots of people back home in Buffalo will watch and cheer.

One won't.

Shaun Powell is a columnist for Newsday, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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