January 26, 2006

Living the Olympic Dream

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For most people, the Winter Olympics comes along once every four years. Maybe you’ve tuned in for the hockey games, watched some moguls or aerials for the cool tricks, even caught yourself tearing up during a medal ceremony – and if you’re a girl, you probably grew up watching figure skating religiously.

But I’m not most people. I come from a different kind of place, a hometown that’s next door to the self-proclaimed Winter Sports Capital of the World – Lake Placid, N.Y., home of the 1932 and 1980 Winter Games and inspiration for two movies, one about hockey and another in which Oliver Platt gets eaten by an alligator. I don’t know much about lake monsters, but I’ve lived and breathed the Olympic spirit shown on-screen by Kurt Russell and company.

My parents had tickets to every hockey game in 1980, including the Miracle on Ice, when Herb Brooks and a bunch of college kids shocked the world by beating the U.S.S.R., 4-3. I played peewee soccer and ran high school track in the shadow of the Olympic torch, the very site of the Opening Ceremonies. Since I was four, I’ve skied at Whiteface Mountain, even racing on the very same trails where Ingemar Stenmark of Sweden won gold in both the giant slalom and slalom. Retirement came early for me, but some of the kids I used to play penny hockey with in the lodge are currently on the roster for Team USA. In high school, we went on field trips to the luge and bobsled track, where we got to hop on sleds and experience the insanity of sliding down an icy chute on your back at top speed. On the Fourth of July, the 120-meter ski jump becomes standing-room only, where people risk trespassing charges for the best seats in town to watch fireworks.

It’s been 25 years since the torch passed through town and Eric Heiden won five gold medals in the speed-skating events, but it might as well have been yesterday. All of the Olympic venues are still there and open for business. World-class athletes pass through town all the time. Some of them are even locals, like hometown heroes Bill Demong, a member of the Nordic combined team in Salt Lake City, and Andrea Kilbourne, who brought home a silver medal in 2002 with the women’s hockey team. Jim Shea, Jr., a Lake Placid native, stole the spotlight in Utah with his gold medal in the skeleton and his status as the first-ever third generation Olympian.

The last time the Olympics were in my neighborhood, 1,072 athletes represented 37 countries in 78 events. Speed skating events were held on an outdoor track in the middle of town and it wasn’t a ridiculous idea that a town of less than 10,000 people in upstate New York grabbed global attention by hosting the biggest sports event in the world.

The modern edition of the Olympics is bigger and brasher in every way. In Salt Lake City, 2,399 athletes from 77 countries participated in 78 events. The Opening Ceremonies were a cross between the Super Bowl halftime show, Cirque du Soleil, and the Ice Capades – a far cry from the simple gathering in the midst of what is now the Lake Placid Horse Show Grounds to watch Dr. Charles Morgan Kerr (some guy from Arizona, of all places) light the cauldron.

But one constant remains – that undeniable Olympic spirit. The drive to go higher, stronger, faster; NBC’s tear-jerking profiles of athletes who sacrifice everything for a shot at the gold; the chills that race down your spine when the national anthem is playing. I get to relive that magic every time I go home, and starting two weeks from tomorrow, so does everyone else.

Olivia Dwyer is a Sun Assistant Sports Editor. Forever Wild will appear every other Thursday this semester.

Archived article by Olivia Dwyer