Lake Placid: Back in the Games

Baltimore Sun Reporter

This was no roller coaster.

The half-mile ride required a liability waiver: Bobsledding "is a hazardous act, which could cause personal injury or damage," according to the only capitalized sentence in a forest of fine print.

After swearing not to sue, my boyfriend, Eric, and I ascended to the starting point in a minivan, pulled on helmets and wedged between the sled's driver and a stranger. The countdown began as the brakeman rowed the fiberglass sled back and forth, heaved forward and vaulted into the back.

A storm of cold air slapped my face as the world tilted horizontal. When the brakeman ground us to a halt 48.1 seconds later, I was giddy. That was darn close to being an Olympian.

The whole "thrill of victory" feeling never left us during two weekend visits -- one last year and one in January -- to Lake Placid. The small town in upstate New York has hosted two Winter Olympics, one in 1932, and possibly the greatest achievement in American sports: the U.S. hockey team's 4-3 victory over the Soviets in 1980.

Lake Placid is still capitalizing on that "miracle," fashioning itself into a world-class training center for athletes, as well as a tourist destination for people who want to sample the excitement -- minus the "agony of defeat" bit.

"No. 1, it is the second-most popular ski destination in the country, not only because it has a wonderful ski hill, but because it has another life," said James Rogers III, a member of the 1980 Olympic organizing committee, who gives regular tours of the "Miracle on Ice" rink.

"You can go up the ski jump and see for miles. You can ride an Olympic bobsled run. You can skate in the place where the 1980 hockey team won its gold medal. You can skate on the same ice where Eric Heiden won five gold medals."

During the tour, Rogers explained another key difference between Lake Placid and other Winter Games sites, such as Salt Lake City or Turin, Italy. There, the events were scattered. Some competitions took place an hour's drive from the opening ceremonies.

In Lake Placid, all of the venues are within nine miles of each other and can be seen from the top of the MacKenzie-Intervale Ski Jump Complex on a clear day.

"We've got three traffic lights and a pair of two-lane roads," said Sandy Caligiore of the Olympic Regional Development Authority, which manages the 1980 facilities. "Today our infrastructure could not accommodate what the Games have become."

View from the top

Lake Placid -- population 2,600, according to the 2000 census -- is inside Adirondack Park, which is nearly the size of Vermont. Only two hours from Montreal, the local brewery accepts Canadian dollars and all of the signs on the interstate are in French and English.

There are 46 picturesque "high peaks" in the Adirondack Mountains, all but four of which stand taller than 4,000 feet. Still, from Lake Placid, the 26-story, 120-meter ski jump looms over the skyline.

It is menacing (it's the tallest structure between Albany, N.Y., and Montreal), and the view from the platform down the center of the ramp is bone chilling. A ride to the top costs $10, and a sign posted there says jumpers take off at speeds of 60 mph and fly for 15 to 20 seconds before landing.

Amateurs aren't allowed to participate in every sport available at Lake Placid. Generally, ski jumping, aerials (flips and twists off a ramp), skeleton (face-first down the bobsled run) and luge (feet first) are off-limits to the public, although luge rides are available Christmas Day for $55. (Thank goodness, because Eric would try just about anything.)

But watching professionals execute such feats almost every weekend during the peak season keeps the town bustling.

Lake Placid has hosted more than 250 World Cup or world championship-level events since 1982, Caligiore said, and the best time to visit is during an event.

Last March, Eric and I watched snowboarders compete in a World Cup quarter-pipe event for free, and in January, we watched aerialists fly under the lights at the Nature Valley Freestyle Cup for $14 apiece.

That night, snow poured down on the aerials venue at the base of the ski jump. Event workers etched bumps into the snow with their skis and drizzled the landing area with twigs to help jumpers spot the ground.

The Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad, a reggae band from Rochester, N.Y., jammed on stage during warm-ups, and NBC filmed men and women shooting off one of six ramps, twisting, turning, flipping and spraying the crowd with snow as they came to a stop.

Just like at the Olympics, fans rang cowbells and waved American flags. The crowd also gasped in unison when a Swiss jumper flew six stories into the air and landed on his stomach.

"I was surprised that he got up and walked away," Caligiore said. "I watched him get up a few minutes later, click on his skis and go right back up to the top."

Skiers' paradise

The downhill skiing at Lake Placid also is world class. Whiteface, home to the Olympic alpine runs, features "the longest vertical drop" in the East, according to Ski Magazine. But the challenging, icy mountain offers little for beginners. Last year, at Eric's encouragement, I stepped into the gondola without understanding how high the run extended into the clouds, made a call, whimpering, to my mother from the top and took two horrifying spills on the descent.

No surprise that we didn't return to Whiteface this year. For 15 years in a row, the resort has been named No. 1 in North America for "off-hill activities" by the readers of Ski.

Friday night, we ice-skated for two hours on the Olympic speed-skating oval at the base of the front steps to Lake Placid High School, a Grecian-style structure that spans the length of the oval.

A wreath and garland wrapped in colorful Christmas lights hung above the school's entrance, electric candles glowed in every window and a fire burned in the center of the oval.

Saturday, we cross-country skied part of the women's Olympic 5K course, one leg of more than 50 kilometers of groomed trails at the Verizon Sports Complex. The next day, we hit the snowshoe trails, which weave through the Olympic cross-country trails and were untouched except for tracks from snowshoe hares.

Had Mirror Lake, the town's centerpiece, been frozen enough, we would have zoomed down its 30-foot toboggan run, which flings sliders more than 1,000 feet onto the ice, according to the local park district. And had there not been a biathlon competition that weekend, we would have taken an hourlong lesson on the sport Friday afternoon.

I never understood how difficult the biathlon was until Rogers explained that the skiing portion of the event jacks up racers' heart rates to a jittery 180-beats-a- minute, making it difficult for them to shoot a 1.77-inch target a 16-story building away.

Biathletes have to be in good enough condition for their heart rates to immediately plummet when they stop, lie on their stomachs or stand, and aim their rifles. Each miss tacks a minute onto their time.

Rogers learned this after marveling at the resting heart rate of the biathlete staying at his house during the 1980 Games.

"If I had his heart rate, I'd be in the hospital hooked up to oxygen," he said.

On the night of the U.S.-Soviet game more than 25 years ago, Rogers estimated that there were 12,000 people in the roughly 8,000-seat arena, and at least another 15,000 people outside on Main Street, which was roped off to vehicle traffic during the Games.

A Methodist minister led the organizing committee. The town's dentist was in charge of all of the visuals -- pictures, slide presentations and printed materials. The owner of the local lumberyard chaired the environmental committee, and Rogers, a radio station owner, was in charge of protocol.

The opening and closing ceremonies at the 2006 Turin Games cost more than the entire 1980 Winter Olympics, Rogers said. And Lake Placid was one of the last Games when all of the competitors stayed in one athletes' village.

After the Games, the residences were converted into a state prison.

Even so, Lake Placid still feels like an athletes' village to me.

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