Lake Placid’s Olympic Revival

About two hours west of Middlebury, Vt. Lake Placid has been buzzing.  Not since the 1980 Olympics has this Adirondack mountain town of just over 2,000 people seen so much action. 

In late October, the main road was getting a new coat of asphalt and big blocks of granite were being laid for new sidewalks. Also on Main Street, the classy Grand Adirondack Hotel opened its doors in August with stylish rooms, original artwork by fly-fisherman and artist James Prosek and a cozy bar and solarium. All fall, hotel manager and former owner Garrick Smith was busy overseeing work on a new rooftop deck and bar with breathtaking views of Mirror Lake and Adirondack Mountains, as well as finishing up the downstairs restaurant. 

Down the road, the Olympic Center was completing a mind-boggling $107 million dollar renovation. That included revamping the rink where the U.S. men’s hockey team had its “Miracle on Ice” upset at the 1980 Olympic Games, beating the Soviet favorites for the gold medal. The Center was also sprucing up the 1932 Olympic ice rink, a smaller practice rink and the outdoor speed skating oval where American Eric Heiden won five gold medals in 1980. 

Also new: a second-floor restaurant with views across the speed skating oval and an expanded Olympic Museum. But, as Olympic Center general manager Chadd Cassidy explained, “Perhaps the biggest cost are the things you don’t see, like using the trapped heat from the ice rinks’ refrigeration system to heat the outdoor walkways so snow doesn’t build up.” 

“In fact, every new building project has been executed with an eye toward sustainability,” noted Jaime Collins, the communications director for the Olympic Regional Development Authority which manages the legacy facilities. Examples range from the electric Zambonis used on the ice rinks to Gore Mountain’s 14,850-panel solar array, the largest dedicated ski area solar array in the U.S. 

At Whiteface Mountain, 160 new low-energy, high-efficiency HKD snow guns were blasting snow across newly-widened race trails such as Draper’s Drop. 

The new base lodge at the center of the Mt. Van Hoevenberg facility with the bobsled run in the background. A bridge across the Nordic race trails makes for great spectating and leads to the biathlon range.

At Mt. Van Hoevenberg, site of the Nordic skiing, biathlon, ski jumping and sliding (bobsled, luge, skeleton) facilities, a brand new 55,000-square-foot Mountain Pass lodge, completed in late 2020, has been swarming with young athletes. Inside, kids were scrambling up a two-story climbing wall. On one side of the building, a bar looks out at an iced indoor push track, to be used by bobsled and skeleton racers. On the other side of the building, a lounge area worthy of an upscale hotel looks out over a 30-row biathlon shooting range and a paved 2.5K Nordic track, designed for summer training on roller skis. 

Around the center, enhanced snowmaking has made Mt. Van Hoevenberg’s World Championship-rated 5 km loop one of the earliest cross-country ski trails to open and the last to close each season. Add to that a new lodge at the base of the ski jumps and the freestyle practice facilities and there’s another $80 million in investment. 

All told, the state of New York has invested more than $500 million in upgrading the aging Lake Placid Olympic facilities and town infrastructure. 

Why? As hotelier Smith, whose family has been in Lake Placid for generations, explained over a beer; “A lot of these facilities were built quickly for the 1980 Games and never meant to last more than six months. We were at a point where we had to upgrade or lose them.  Getting the World University Games gave us the impetus to look ahead and think about building for the next century.” For Smith, that meant first buying and then renovating the building on Main Street that is now the Grand Adirondack hotel. 

Let The Games Begin

Scheduled for Jan. 12-22, 2023, the 31st World University Games are open to invited athletes ages 17 to 25 in 12 Olympic sports. 

“The University Games feel like an Olympics in that all these athletes from different winter sports are competing at the same time,” said Tim Burke, a former World University Games competitor, as he gave a tour of the Mt. Van Hoevenberg facility. Burke, who grew up just outside of Lake Placid, was the first American to ever take the lead in the Biathlon World Cup. He now coaches the U.S. Biathlon Team. “We’ve hosted a lot of different national championships and World Cups here for various sports but this January will be the first time since 1980 that all those sports will be happening at once, in one small town,” he said. 

Put on by the International University Sports Federation (FISU), the World University Games have not been held in the United States since Buffalo, N.Y. hosted the Summer 1993 Universiade (as the University Games are also called).  Lake Placid  also hosted the winter version back in 1972. 

Whiteface has helped to turn out some of the nation’s tom ski racers.

The FISU Games typically take place in a different city ever two years, though the 2021 Games, scheduled to be held in Lucerne, Switzerland, were cancelled due to the Covid 19 pandemic. 

For 11 days in January, Lake Placid will be home to nearly 1,500 athletes representing 50 countries, as well as another 1,000 or so coaches, trainers, officials and otherdelegates. There will be opening and closing ceremonies, podiums, flags flying from each country represented and much of the pomp and circumstance that goes with an Olympics, albeit on a smaller scale. 

The town of Lake Placid will host cross-country skiing, biathlon, Nordic combined, ski jumping, figure skating, speed skating and short track speed skating and curling—as well as  the semi-finals and finals for ice hockey. 

You can take an elevator to the top of the ski jump and peer down the large hill.

The alpine ski racing events (alpine combined, slalom, GS, super G and mixed team parallel) will be held at Whiteface Mountain and freestyle, free skiing (ski cross, slopestyle and big air) and snowboard (parallel slalom and GS, slopestyle, big air and snowboard cross) events take place an hour south, at Gore Mountain. All sports will hold events for men and for women, unlike the Olympics where the Nordic combined competition does not have women’s event.

Unlike the NCAAs, participants represent their countries, not their universities. In other words, alpine ski racing’s mixed team parallel event could include racers from Middlebury College and the University of Colorado or other colleges or universities. Participants have to be between 17 and 25 years old and enrolled in a college or university and invited by the sport’s governing body. As of press time, qualifications hadn’t been finalized however Middlebury College ski racer Mika-Ann Reha  of Canada had secured a spot and coach Stever Bartlett expects other teammates will compete too. 

“It’s different for every sport,” notes Tommy Biesemeyer, an Olympic downhiller who grew up in the Lake Placid area, raced for the University of Vermont as an undergraduate, and then returned to the area where he coaches at Lake Placid’s Northwoods School. “This year it might be tough for a lot of the top alpine skiers in the east to compete as it happens in the middle of the college carnival season and the World Cup and no one wants to get hurt,” he notes. “But in cross-country and other events, you’re likely to see some top competitors.” 

The Olympic Village

In addition to Biesemeyer who competed in the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang, Lake Placid has produced its fair share of Olympians. A new quad chair is named ‘Warhorse’ for another local ski racer, two-time Olympic medalist Andrew Weibrecht—who now works at his family’s Mirror Lake Inn, an elegant resort and spa in Lake Placid. Guests at the resort can even arrange for a private ski session with the Olympian who earned a silver in Sochi and a bronze in Whistler, both in super G. 

Olympic biathletes Lowell Bailey, Tim Burke and Maddie Phaneuf all came from the Lake Placid area and now are back in town coaching a new generation. 

“I wasn’t alive when the 1980 Olympics were here,” says Phaneuf, 27, who competed in the 2018 Winter Games. “But the town has this Olympic spirit and expectations. As a kid growing up here, it just inspires you,” she said as we toured the Mt. Van Hoevenberg facilities. 

Nordic racers skate beneath the bridge in front of the new Mount Van Hoevenberg base lodge.

Colin Delaney also grew up cross-country skiing on the trails at Mt. Van Hoevenberg and ski jumping. “I think I was 12 or 14 the first time I went down this,” he said as we stood at the top of the 128-meter ski jump that towers over the landscape like a sky scraper. Delaney went on to compete in Nordic Combined on the World Cup and now he too is back as a coach, helping the next generation of ski jumpers speed down the ramp in a tuck and then take off, flying the length of a football field. 

As you move around town, it feels like every person, every business is in some way connected to the past Olympics and now, to the FISU Games. At Locker Five – a nod to the locker the gold-medal winning U.S. men’s hockey team used in 1980—you can rent skates and head out on Mirror Lake. In the Grand Adirondack, there’s a chatter of different languages in the lobby as international athletes and officials from various sports come and go. 

“I went to high school right there,” says Chadd Cassidy, as he stands in the new restaurant at the Olympic Center that looks out at the speed skating oval and his old high school. “I never imagined I’d be overseeing the renovation of this place now. It took a village to put on the 1980 Olympic Games. And now just about everyone in town is in some way connected to making this place a destination for sports in the future.”

That future may never include an Olympics – the event has outgrown the area. Nor may it see a World Cup downhill — the course no longer meets new standards. But in October 2022 alone, Lake Placid hosted the national championships for skeleton, bobsled push, Nordic combined, a major figure skating competition and the Spartan Trail Challenge, an ultra-distance trail run. 

Yes, Lake Placid may not host an Olympics again, but you can be sure it will continue to draw future Olympians. 

For more on the FISU World University Games, tickets, events and more, see lakeplacid2023.com. u

At the Olympic Center in downtown Lake Placid the speed skating oval is open for public skating when events are not being held.

 

All photos courtesy of ORDA.

Lisa Lynn

Editor of VT SKI + RIDE and Vermont Sports.

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