BELLINGHAM — Almost fittingly, Bellingham's golden girl got to ride in the back of a yellow truck on Saturday, May 24, during the Ski to Sea Blossom Time Grand Parade.
While Bellingham and Whatcom County got to show just how proud they were of Angeli VanLaanen — the city's first female Olympian and first Winter Olympian — she said she wanted to take the opportunity to thank the community for all its support during her run to the Sochi Winter Olympics.
"I'm just so excited to say thank you," VanLaanen said in a phone interview on Thursday, May 22.
In fact, she was so excited she couldn't wait for the parade to begin.
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An hour before the scheduled start time of the parade, VanLaanen, with the help of some friends and family, set up a table in front of Cool Beans Coffee on Cornwall Avenue and invited everyone to come and get an autographed picture.
A steady stream of residents took her up on the offer -- some she knew, and some were new friends.
"It was really awesome," 9-year old Neva Hansen said of meeting VanLaanen.
Hansen, who patiently waited her turn to speak to VanLaanen along with her 5-year-old brother, Richard Hansen, and 4-year-old-sister, Grace Rusing, said all three watched VanLaanen compete in the women's freeskiing halfpipe in February during the Olympics.
"It's like, oh my gosh, I've never went to (the Olympics), but that's like the first time I ever went," Neva said.
VanLaanen gave encouraging words to both Richard and Grace about following their dreams in football and cheerleading, respectively.
"I wanted to show them that though she's a very famous female athlete, just to dream big," said the trio's mother, Laurene Rusing. “Even though we’re from small towns, we can all make it big.”
Make no doubt about it, that message was received by Neva, who wants to be a singer.
As soon as she heard that, she immediately began to sing a song from the movie "Frozen," and shortly afterwards went back to VanLaanen to get a hug.
Neva wasn't the only one to get a hug from VanLaanen on Saturday, though.
Kara Bezanson, a German teacher at Bellingham High School, also embraced the Olympian and took a selfie with her.
"I never had her as a student, but I advise the dance team, actually before she was on it," Bezanson said. "I didn't expect her to remember me, but she did."
"I thought it was very touching. I didn't know if she would remember me, so I said 'Hi,' like an everyday citizen, because I didn't want to embarrass her by saying, 'We knew each other, remember?' But she said, '(Gasp) Hello!' It made me realize she's really sweet. She totally knew who I was."
Bezanson said she often spoke about VanLaanen with her class leading up to the Olympics.
"She loved something and followed her passion, and look where it's taken her," Bezanson said. "Look at all she overcame with the Lyme disease and everything else. I think she's really inspiring to everybody, whether they live in Bellingham or not. she just persevered through everything. For us, from Bellingham High School, we're super proud of her."
Bezanson said the VanLaanen is expected to speak to the Red Raiders this fall.
"She said, 'I remember assemblies at Bellingham High were my favorite things and being inspired by people, and now I get to inspire kids,’" Bezanson said. "I was like, that is so nice."