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For one man, cheers ring hollow

One man stands on a mountain. Below is a world of possibilities, and ahead is a lifetime filled with promise.

Another man lies in the dark. There is too much space in his bed, and too many of his days are filled with uncertainty.

They have never met, although one is sure to be thinking of the other today. For there is a bond between this moguls skier and this father of two. A bond that will never be broken, even if it is forever cursed.

Today, Travis Mayer resumes his Olympic career.

And Robert Hamblin wonders about the justice in that.

Four years ago, Hamblin and his wife, Diane, watched the Salt Lake City Olympics in their home in upstate New York and delighted in the silver medal won by Mayer, a local boy whose family lived nearby in suburban Buffalo.

Three years later, Mayer drove through a stop sign and smashed into the side of Diane's car, sending it spinning into a field. On his way home from work, Robert drove past the scene and saw the wreckage of the 1974 Dodge Dart he had carefully restored for Diane. By the time he made it to the hospital, she was gone.

"It was a long drive home from the hospital that night," Hamblin said Monday night from Arcade, N.Y. "I was trying to figure out how to tell a 9-year-old and a 3-year-old that their mom would never be coming home."

Hamblin watched coverage of the accident on the local news that night and heard Mayer's name mentioned, but he never made the connection. It wasn't until days later that he was told Mayer was the Olympic hero from down the road.

Now, eight months later, Mayer is hours from competing in the Winter Games again, and Hamblin is struggling to maintain normalcy in his life.

There is child care to worry about. There are appointments to be met for swimming, piano, dance and sewing lessons for the kids. There are financial concerns from the loss of Diane's interior decorating business. There are long, sleepless nights and grim reminders on birthdays and holidays.

Lately, there has also been anger.

Investigators determined that alcohol did not play a role in the crash. Nor had Mayer been speeding. He had simply failed to see, or acknowledge, a stop sign in the middle of a sunny summer day.

Mayer, 23, was given a traffic citation for failure to yield the right of way.

"I stopped for gas tonight, and I'm looking at the warning on the pump," Hamblin said. "It said anyone driving away without paying will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. You can get a year in jail and $1,000 fine for not paying your $45 gas bill. But you can take a life and eight months later have everyone cheering for you at the Olympics.

"I'd like to believe his being an athlete had nothing to do with it, but I wonder if you or I would be treated the same way."

It is not a jail sentence for Mayer that Hamblin seeks. His concerns are more personal. He would like answers, for one thing. He would like Mayer to explain what, exactly, he was doing or thinking that made him miss a stop sign in plain view. Hamblin also wants a better sense of Mayer's regret.

Since arriving in Italy, Mayer has kept away from reporters. He was the only U.S. men's moguls skier to skip a news conference last week.

In previous interviews, Mayer has expressed remorse and said not a day goes by that he does not think about the accident and its impact. Mayer, who will retire after these Games and plans to go to law school, said that time on the slopes has helped him work through the difficulties of the past year.

What concerns Hamblin is the way Mayer has been portrayed in some news reports. It's as if Mayer is the one who suffered a tragedy, he said.

It also bothered Hamblin that Mayer never contacted him. He received a heartfelt card from Mayer's mother, but not from the Cornell honors student.

So a few months ago, Hamblin called Mayer.

"That was what disappointed me the most. I told him it wasn't right that he had his mother take care of his dirty laundry. That wasn't the manly way to handle it," Hamblin said. "He apologized many times over, but he would never come clean about where his mind was at the time of the accident.

"I wasn't looking for closure. There'll never be closure. But I wanted to get a feeling for what kind of young man he was."

And what was that feeling?

"You don't want to know."

As he speaks, Hamblin's voice is calm. His words have more of an edge than his tone, as if his rage has been drowned by sorrow.

When he talks of his children, he can go from sad to cheerful and back again within the space of a minute.

His son, Brennan, is now 4, and his daughter, Shannon, will soon be 10. Day to day, he said, they're doing well. About a half-dozen friends and family members have pitched in to fill Diane's various roles.

Still, there are moments that break Hamblin's heart.

Brennan occasionally asks why his mom is still at the doctor's office. And Shannon, whose mother would do her hair and make sure her clothes were color-coordinated and fashionable, is trying to take care of herself.

"I'm so proud of her because she's taking on so much on her own, but I look at her and I know she's already had to grow up more than I'd like her to," Hamblin said. "Seeing her trying to take care of herself, and knowing we can't decorate the house for Christmas like Diane did, and having Brennan's birthday a couple of weeks ago it's the little things that eat at you."

Brennan was a newborn during the Salt Lake City Games, and Robert and Diane would watch the Olympics between feedings and diaper changes.

Robert said he has tried to watch the Turin Games, but he hasn't had the heart. He does not expect, he says, to watch Mayer's performance tonight.

"You have to understand, she wasn't just my wife, she was my best friend," Hamblin said. "All told, we were together for 29 years. We purposefully waited before we had children because we wanted to be able to enjoy each other, and be able to travel and make sure we were comfortable and financially prepared once we were parents.

"She told me that I could do or have whatever it was I wanted, as long as she could have her two children.

"And now she's not here to see them grow."