Sports
3:48 pm
Tue January 14, 2014

Lake Placid: An Incubator For Winter Olympians

Originally published on Wed January 15, 2014 10:18 am

Next month, when the Winter Olympics open in Sochi, a surprising number of athletes from the U.S. will come from a collection of tiny towns and villages in New York's Adirondack Mountains.

In the blue-collar towns and resort villages around Lake Placid, I kept meeting locals like Annelies Cook, who will ski and shoot in the biathlon competition.

"There's such an Olympic spirit here," Cook says. "There's people in front of you that are making the Olympic team, you know, all sorts of role models, so it seems really feasible."

You may remember Miracle on Ice and that huge hockey match at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics. An amazing moment in sports history, no question. But that was all about the Cold War, the U.S. battling the Soviet Union, which itself is now ancient history. To athletes here in the present, the Olympics don't seem like a pipe dream and they don't seem like ancient history — they're just sort of what people do.

The rural region hosted the Winter Olympics in 1932 and again in 1980, and it has maintained a tradition as a kind of national incubator for top winter-sport athletes. The payoff is pretty amazing. In Vancouver four years ago, athletes who grew up in the Adirondacks accounted for about 1 in 10 medals won by the U.S. Not bad for one rural area decades after the last local Olympics.

Cook points out that at the Sochi games, two of her teammates on the U.S. biathlon squad will be neighbors — guys she grew up with.

"I've known them my whole life, you know. They knew me when I had buckteeth and braces," she says, laughing.

It turns out that a bunch of American Olympic athletes, including Cook, got their start skiing at Dewey Mountain, a little cross-country ski center in Saranac Lake just down the road from Lake Placid. A few weeks ago, Dewey renamed one of its trails after Cook as young skiers gathered around.

"These kids get used to the idea of Olympians just dropping by and hanging out," says Jason Smith, who runs Dewey Mountain. After the 2010 Vancouver games, Smith says, local Nordic combined racer Bill Demong let the young skiers check out his gold medal.

"Kids were handing it from kid to kid to kid," Smith says. "And you can see this ... . It gets them pumped up and makes these kids think, 'Yeah, this is attainable at this little tiny ski mountain in the middle of Saranac Lake.' "

Maintaining this level of Olympic ambition isn't easy, especially for working-class families, whose kids will eventually have to compete head to head with European athletes who live on government stipends and big endorsement deals. Peter Frenette, 21, from Saranac Lake is a long-distance ski jumper who competed in Vancouver and is vying again for a spot on the Sochi team. He found support online but also locally.

"I've had a lot of help from my community, [with] local people coming to my fundraisers [and] donating money ... anything really," Frenette says.

His mom, Jennie, a teacher at the local middle school, says winter sports are part of the family tradition, but supporting Peter has meant real sacrifice.

"[I] work extra jobs," she says. "I wait tables on the side, and you just do what you need to do."

Sustaining this level of winter sports culture isn't all mom-and-pop stuff. There's still an official Olympic Training Center here run by the U.S. Olympic Committee.

Ted Blazer heads the Olympic Regional Development Authority — a state agency that maintains Lake Placid's bobsled track and pro-caliber cross-country ski area, venues that still fight to attract World Cup races and national championships.

"It would be easy, I think, for some communities maybe to fall off that map," Blazer says. "What we try to do is create the culture where it's always top-of-mind awareness."

With final team trials and competitions still underway, it's not clear yet how many athletes from here will compete in Sochi. What's certain, though, is that local athletes will anchor the American luge team and the biathlon team, and also give the U.S. another real shot at gold in the Nordic combined.

Copyright 2014 North Country Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.northcountrypublicradio.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

When the Olympic Games open in Sochi next month, a rising number of U.S. athletes will come from a collection of tiny towns in New York's Adirondack Mountains. The rural region hosted the Winter Olympics in 1932 and again in 1980. And it's long been an unofficial national incubator for top winter sport athletes.

North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann has our story.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: OK, first a confession. When I moved to the Adirondacks 15 years ago, the Lake Placid Olympics already seemed like ancient history. Remember the Miracle On Ice in 1980, that huge hockey match?

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Five seconds left. Do you believe in miracles? Yes.

MANN: An amazing moment in sports history, no question. But that was all about the Cold War, the U.S. battling the Soviet Union, which itself is now ancient history. But in the blue-collar towns and resort villages around Lake Placid, I kept meeting locals like Annelies Cook, who will ski and shoot in the biathlon competition in Sochi next month.

ANNELIES COOK: There's such an Olympic spirit here. There's people in front of you that are making the Olympic team, you know, all sorts of role models. So it seems really feasible.

MANN: To athletes here, the Olympics don't seem like a pipe dream and they don't seem like ancient history. The Olympics is just sort of what people do. Cook points out that at the Sochi games, two of her teammates on the U.S. biathlon squad will be neighbors - guys she grew up with.

COOK: I've known them my whole life, you know. They knew me when I had buckteeth and braces.

(LAUGHTER)

MANN: It turns out that a bunch of American Olympic athletes, including Cook, got their start skiing at Dewey Mountain, a little cross-country ski center in Saranac Lake just down the road from Lake Placid. A few weeks ago, Dewey Mountain renamed one of its trails after Cook as young skiers gathered around.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

MANN: Jason Smith, who runs Dewey Mountain, says these kids get used to the idea of Olympians just dropping by and hanging out. After the Vancouver games, Smith says, local Nordic combined racer Bill Demong let the young skiers check out his gold medal.

JASON SMITH: Kids were handing it from kid to kid to kid. And you can see that it gets them pumped up and makes these kids think that, yeah, this is attainable at this little tiny ski mountain in the middle of Saranac Lake.

MANN: Maintaining this level of Olympic ambition isn't easy, especially for working class families whose kids will eventually have to compete head-to-head with European athletes who live on government stipends and big endorsement deals.

PETER FRENETTE: I've had a lot of help from my community with, you know, local people coming to my fundraisers and, you know, donating, giving money - you know, anything really.

MANN: Twenty-one-year-old Peter Frenette from Saranac Lake is a long-distance ski jumper who competed in Vancouver and is vying again for a spot on the Sochi team. His mom Jennie, a teacher in the middle school here, says winter sports are part of the family tradition, but supporting Peter has meant real sacrifice.

JENNIE FRENETTE: Work extra jobs. You know, I wait tables on the side and you just do what you need to do.

MANN: Sustaining this level of winter sports culture isn't all mom and pop stuff. There's still an official Olympic training center here run by the U.S. Olympic Committee. Ted Blazer heads the Olympic Regional Development Authority, a state agency that maintains Lake Placid's bobsled track and pro-caliber cross-country ski area - venues that still fight to attract world cup races and national championships.

TED BLAZER: It would be easy, I think, for some communities maybe to fall off that map. But what we try to do is create the culture where it's always top-of-mind awareness.

MANN: The pay-off is pretty amazing. In Vancouver, four years ago, athletes who grew up in the Adirondack Mountains accounted for about 1 in 10 medals garnered by the entire U.S. Not bad for one rural area decades after the last local Olympics.

With final team trials and competitions still underway, it's not clear yet exactly how many athletes from here will compete in Sochi. What's certain though is that local athletes will anchor the American luge team and the biathlon team, while also giving the U.S. another real shot at gold in the Nordic combined.

For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann in Lake Placid.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.