Lake Placid Churns Out Olympians Aiming For Gold The Lake Placid, N.Y., area has sent at least one athlete to every Winter Olympics since they began in 1924. This year, 10 athletes will go to Vancouver, including Nordic combined world champion Bill Demong. NPR's Melissa Block talked to some of the families of the Olympic athletes — and those who hope to create the next generation of Olympians.
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Lake Placid Churns Out Olympians Aiming For Gold

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Lake Placid Churns Out Olympians Aiming For Gold

Lake Placid Churns Out Olympians Aiming For Gold

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Madeleine Brand. The Olympics are a mammoth industry. Next month's Winter Games in Vancouver will cost more than $1.5 billion; 5,500 athletes from more than 80 countries will compete. We're going to hear now about a time when the Olympics were much simpler and much smaller. Our co-host, Melissa Block, is visiting an earlier Olympic host city.


Well, a small town really, Lake Placid, New York, nestled in the Adirondack Mountains. Just a few thousand people live here, and it cherishes its bragging rights. Tiny Lake Placid considers itself the winter sports capital of the world, home to not one but two Olympics.

(Soundbite of archival footage)

(Soundbite of applause)

Governor FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT (Democrat, New York): I welcome you, the representatives of many of our sister nations, to this, the opening of the third Winter Olympic Games.

BLOCK: In 1932, then-New York Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt opened the Lake Placid games. Lake Placid hosted the games again in 1980, the year the U.S. Olympic hockey team beat the Soviet Union in the Miracle on Ice.

(Soundbite of hockey game)

Mr. SANDY CALIGIORE (Sports Announcer): (Unintelligible). They thought it was impossible. The United States has upset the Soviet Union. I can't believe it. This is a miracle. I can't believe it.

BLOCK: That's longtime Lake Placidian Sandy Caligiore calling the 1980 game for the local radio station WNBZ. I meet up with him in the shadow of that hockey arena. We lace up some skates and glide onto the 400-meter Olympic speed skating oval. It's outdoors, uncovered, where more history was made in 1980.

Mr. CALIGIORE: We are, right here, literally in the footsteps of where Eric Heiden won his five gold medals in 1980, you know?

BLOCK: It feels very small-town America. We're right on Main Street.

Mr. CALIGIORE: Yeah. This is it. And, you know, back in those days, Melissa, this was really the last of the really small, intimate Olympic Winter Games.

BLOCK: And Sandy, right here to our right is Lake Placid High School built right next to the ice.


BLOCK: Kids here would be in class looking out at this oval, thinking maybe, I could be Eric Heiden.

Mr. CALIGIORE: Well, and this is one of the great things about Lake Placid, that you let your mind wander if you're a kid. And, you know, there's every reason to think that you can achieve greatness because you have access to a venue such as this.

BLOCK: I'm not feeling quite like Eric Heiden tonight.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: I don't know about you, Sandy.

Mr. CALIGIORE: No, no, no. They'll never mistake us.

BLOCK: But not bad for a public radio host.


(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: Last Friday night, it seemed all of Lake Placid turned out to watch a World Cup aerials competition, an Olympic qualifying event. The cold night air glittered with silver crystals like magic dust as skiers flew and twisted and slipped under a quarter moon.

Unidentified Man: Here we go. With exactly (unintelligible). He's from Canada.

(Soundbite of cheering)

BLOCK: Amanda Rondo(ph) of nearby Au Sable Forks had bundled up her four-year-old daughter Katie(ph) to come watch. Katie has been skiing since she was 19 months old. And her mom says in a town like Lake Placid, which churns out Winter Olympians like crazy, an Olympic future for Katie seem possible.

Ms. AMANDA RONDO: Oh, yeah. It's definitely, I would think, would be in reach. I mean, just state-of-the-art facilities and so much knowledge and passion behind it that we have up here.

BLOCK: The Lake Placid area has sent at least one athlete to every Winter Olympics since they began in 1924. And it's no wonder when you look around, everywhere you go here, you are surrounded by active Olympic training venues.

You think you want to try ski jump? Go on over to the terrifying 26-story-tall jump on the outskirts of the village. Tempted by bobsled or luge? Their competition tracks are here, too. This year, the Lake Placid area will send 10 athletes to Vancouver, some have been competing against each other for decades.

Ms. HELEN DEMONG: This is a picture that was taken when the boys were approximately nine, 10 years old. And you can see on the podium, first place is Lowell Bailey. Second place is Bill Demong. Third place is Timmy Burke.

BLOCK: And they're all going to Vancouver.

Ms. DEMONG: They're all going to Vancouver.

BLOCK: That's Helen Demong. Her son Bill is a world champion in Nordic combined. That's cross-country skiing and ski jumping. Bill's buddies, Tim Burke and Lowell Bailey, are strong Olympic contenders in biathlon, which combines cross-country and rifle shooting. Helen Demong says winter sports are just in these kids' blood.

Ms. DEMONG: I was eight months pregnant with Bill at the 1980 Olympics. And I remember patting my belly, thinking, this is my Olympic baby.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DEMONG: It worked.

BLOCK: And Elizabeth Bailey remembers her husband skiing the back country with baby Lowell on his back.

Ms. ELIZABETH BAILEY: I remember Lowell could barely say much except faster, faster, Pop. I'm sure, Jack, you probably had Tim on your back.


Ms. BAILEY: And so these kids grew up, like before they could ski, skiing.

Mr. BURKE: There's not a lot of the typical distractions that you might have if you're in a more populated area.

BLOCK: This is Jack Burke, Tim's dad.

Mr. BURKE: They couldn't go to a mall if they wanted to.

BLOCK: Yeah, the U.S. has never won a medal in either biathlon or Nordic combined. So Helen Demong says hopes are riding high on these local athletes.

Ms. DEMONG: Because we have been the underdog for so long, if they medal, it will bring it to the attention of Americans. That's what speaks to Americans: results.

BLOCK: And these Olympic parents say their kids would love to see another wave of young athletes fall in love with these sports and come up behind them.

I'm Melissa Block in Lake Placid, New York.

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