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Peter Sr., Peter Frenette, and Jennie Frenette at the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver. Photo: Frenette Family
Peter Sr., Peter Frenette, and Jennie Frenette at the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver. Photo: Frenette Family

Olympic history ignites powerhouse Olympic culture

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The opening ceremonies at the Winter Olympics in Sochi Russia are less than a month away. In these weeks leading up the Olympic Games we're profiling many of the North Country athletes who will compete this year.

At the 2010 Olympics, skiers and sledders from this region accounted for a significant number of America's total medal count -- including a first-ever gold-medal win in Nordic Combined.

This morning, Brian Mann looks at how the Adirondack North Country has managed to maintain its Olympic edge, decades after the last Winter Games were held in Lake Placid.

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Reported by

Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

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Here’s a confession.  When I moved to New York’s Adirondack Mountains fifteen years ago, the Lake Placid Olympics already seemed kind of like ancient history.  Remember the Miracle On Ice, that huge hockey match?

Annelies Cook from Saranac Lake is one of three Adirondackers who will ski and shoot for the US biathlon team in Sochi Russia. Photo: Chris Knight, courtesy <em>Adirondack Daily Enterprise</em>
Annelies Cook from Saranac Lake is one of three Adirondackers who will ski and shoot for the US biathlon team in Sochi Russia. Photo: Chris Knight, courtesy Adirondack Daily Enterprise
That was all about the Cold War, the US battling the Soviet Union.  An amazing moment in sports history, no question.  But that was 1980.  The Soviet Union doesn’t even exist anymore.

But in the little mountain towns around Lake Placid, I kept meeting people like Annelies Cook, a biathlon racer who’ll ski and shoot in Sochi Russia next month.

Cook, who’s 29, wasn’t even born when the last Winter Olympics were held in these mountains.  But she was raised in a place where the idea of the Olympics still just seemed sort of doable.

At the Sochi games, next month the US biathlon team – that’s the sport combining cross-country skiing and rifle marksmanship – will be anchored by athletes from these little Adirondack villages.

Cook’s teammates include Lowell Bailey from Lake Placid and Tim Burke from Paul Smiths – veteran Olympians, but also kids she grew up with.

These athletes grew up skiing at a little local cross-country center called Dewey Mountain in Saranac Lake.  A few weeks ago, Dewey named one of the trails after Cook, as a crowd of kids gathered around.

Jason Smith, who helps run Dewey, says the Olympic culture is sort of second nature here. 

Bill Demong. Photo by Nancie Battaglia.
Bill Demong. Photo by Nancie Battaglia.
Another regular at Dewey is Bill Demong, who grew up in Vermontville and won a gold medal in Vancouver four years ago in the Nordic combined – a sport that meshes endurance ski racing and long-distance ski jumping.

Bill Demong’s 2010 gold medal win was one of the break-out moments of the Vancouver games – he was the first American ever to capture gold in that event. 

Skiing in Lake Placid this fall, Demong described the Adirondacks as a kind of incubator for winter sport talent.

Maintaining that Olympic energy isn’t easy.  Peter Frenette is a long-distance ski jumper from Saranac Lake who competed in Vancouver – he’s still fighting for a spot on this year’s team.

In order for Frenette to stay in the running – competitive against European athletes who often receive government stipends and big endorsement deals – it takes a lot of grassroots effort.

Families here too make huge sacrifices to keep these athletes training and competing at the Olympic level.  But maintaining this region’s Olympic culture isn’t all mom and pop stuff.

Ted Blazer runs the Olympic Regional Development Authority – that’s the state agencies that maintains Lake Placid’s bobsled track and Olympic-caliber cross-country ski area.

While there hasn’t been an Olympics here in thirty-five years, ORDA sponsors regular world cup races and championships in everything from downhill skiing to luge racing. 

Saranac Lake turned out after the 2010 Vancouver games for a parade to honor returning North Country Olympic athletes. Nancie Battaglia photos
Saranac Lake turned out after the 2010 Vancouver games for a parade to honor returning North Country Olympic athletes. Nancie Battaglia photos
Blazer says kids here grow up seeing that kind of top-tier winter sport – seeing other kids on track to compete at that level.

It’s still not clear exactly how many athletes from these mountains will compete in Sochi.  Trials and competitions are still underway. 

But we know already that the Adirondacks will anchor a big part of the American luge team as well as the biathlon team.  And veteran Bill Demong will give the USA a real shot at another gold medal in the Nordic combined.  

Not bad for a handful of mountain villages decades after the last home-town Olympic games.

 

Special thanks to Chris Knight and Mike Lynch from the Adirondack Daily Enterprise who helped with this story.

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