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.
U.S. hockey team members leap on the ice after they upset the favored Soviet team by a 4-3 score at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y.
U.S. hockey team members leap on the ice after they upset the favored Soviet team by a 4-3 score at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y. AP
"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.
Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images
Ski jumper Peter Frenette competed in the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. He hopes to make it onto the team again this year.
Ski jumper Peter Frenette competed in the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. He hopes to make it onto the team again this year. Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images
"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.