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.