Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Olympic Spirit in the Adirondack Village

travel memoir
by Greg Larson

     The recent Winter Olympics in Vancouver reminded me of past Olympic competitions, especially the 1980 winter games in Lake Placid, New York.  It also brought back memories of my trip there in 2004.  Gretta, my wife, is an accomplished figure skater, and she was scheduled to compete at Lake Placid in the Adult National Figure Skating Championships.  In her fifties, she defies her age as she glides and jumps on the ice, wearing what one of my relatives describes as “one of those flippy skirts.”  I had watched her practice and compete many times, but 2004 was the first time I attended the national event.  When I learned that Lake Placid was the location, I jumped at the opportunity to see where the 1932 and 1980 Olympics had taken place.  Watching the skating competition added to the excitement, since it is an Olympic sport.

     Nestled in the Adirondack Mountains, Lake Placid is in Essex County in upstate New York.  It is not a quick and easy destination, even when the weather is good and the crowds are small.  I flew to Albany, New York, and boarded a shuttle bus at the airport, and settled in for a long ride up Interstate 87, followed by a twenty mile stretch of winding two-lane highway that crossed frozen creeks and rivers, passing rural roads with hand-made signs advertising maple syrup.  After the ride through the Adirondacks, the forests opened up to green fields on the south side of Lake Placid.  It seemed to be a most unlikely place for the 1980 Winter Olympics ceremonies.  The wooden poles used for the light standards were like old soldiers standing in the meadow, and the tower for the ski jump loomed in the mist on the mountainside.  I shivered at the thought of hurtling down the big jump. No guts, no glory.

Lake Placid, N.Y. - nestled in the Adirondacks.

     The village of Lake Placid seemed so quaint…not the location you would expect for an international event.  But then I realized it was a different world back in 1980…without cell phones, internet, and niche marketing…and the U.S. relations with the Soviets were still in the throes of the cold war.  It was prior to the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, where the marketing of the games soared to new heights.  I decided to poke around the little town and the skating arenas, and absorb some of the history and the spirit that remains.

     Gretta had traveled to Lake Placid ahead of me and was deep into her practice sessions when I arrived.  I hurried to the arena to find her.  Chills went up my spine as I walked into the Olympic arena for the first time.  It is now the Herb Brooks Arena, named after the coach of the 1980 U.S. Hockey Team.  I looked to the ice rink below, and in my mind I could hear Al Michaels screaming, “Do you believe in miracles?” as he announced the U.S. hockey team’s win over the U.S.S.R in 1980.  The arena was much smaller than it appeared on television.  The seating capacity is only 7,700…very small compared to an Olympic venue today.  Looking around the intimate space, I could imagine the deafening roar of 1980 reverberating off the ice and into the rafters.

     Once I found Gretta, it was clear to me that she was in her competition zone.  It was best to let her know I was there to support her and cheer her on, but I knew it was important not to interrupt her train of thought, or I might detach her from an intense focus on skating.  I watched her practice and over the next two days followed her to the semi-final and final events, with skate bags in tow.  The changing areas in the lower halls of the arena were sparse, with narrow halls and a cinder block collection of rooms, small in scale.  In my mind, I strained to hear Herb Brooks coaching the U.S. team before the final medal game with Finland.  I could almost hear his words in the cramped space before he sent the team into the arena: “Men, if you don’t win this game today, you’re going to take it to your (expletive) grave.”

     Between the skating events, we walked through the village, strung out along the west shoreline of Mirror Lake.  The linear arrangement of gift shops, restaurants, bars and establishments is similar to any resort town.  One of my favorite shops was a sporting goods store, whose sign bespoke a schizoid marketing message to its clientele.

Buy some bullets and a gift for your loved one.

     The sporting goods store was located on the highway coming into town, just across the street from the high school and the outdoor venue for the 1980 Olympic speed skating rink.  The 400 meter speed skating rink reminded me of a typical rural-town football field and track, with minimal space for bleachers around the perimeter.  It was hard for me to imagine Eric Heiden, the unassuming skater who shunned endorsements and fame, rocketing across the ice through the wind and the elements to win his record five gold medals.  During one of his medal attempts, it was reported the bleachers at the outdoor venue were packed with 3,000 people, while other fans hung on the fences, climbed trees and stood on balconies and rooftops to witness the competition.

Outdoor speed skating rink...high school and arena beyond.

     While watching the 2004 adult figure skating competitions, I thought of all the history, and of the figure skaters and hockey teams that floated across these hallowed surfaces of ice.  Actually, the complex houses four ice surfaces and two arenas; the old arena for the 1932 Olympics where Sonja Henie won the women’s figure skating event, and the newer arena for the 1980 Olympics figure skating and hockey competitions.  We walked the connecting hallway between them and I discovered a memorial plaque that commemorates the fatal 1961 plane crash of the Sabena Airlines – Boeing 707 in Belgium, that killed eighteen members of the U.S. Figure Skating Team along with many coaches, officials and family members.  The team was in route to the 1961 World Championships in Brussels.

     The most impressive thing I’ve learned from watching Gretta’s competitions and practices is that figure skating is one of the most difficult sports to master…more difficult than golf…and that is saying a lot.  The U.S. Figure Skating Association requires skaters to pass a rigorous test before they are allowed to compete.  For her age group, only a small number of adults throughout the U.S. are able to compete at such a high level.  For years, Gretta arose at 4:30 am to practice four times a week in the early morning before the workday.  It was necessary for her to acquire the services of a skating coach, a choreographer and a dressmaker (Gretta adds all the sequins and trim).

Gretta, making it look easy on the ice.

     Although it was a competition, the women who Gretta competed against were excited to see each other, and they encouraged each other to do their best.  They met just once or twice a year, but the chatting began immediately after their greetings, as if they were walking down the grocery aisles together.

At the final competition, I was like a nervous mother watching Gretta make every move in her program.  Over the years, she taught me to recognize different moves and jumps with funny names like Axel, Salchow, Ina Bauer, and Lutz.  Having memorized every move and jump in her program, I knew when she executed well or poorly, and my hands were getting tired and sweaty from clutching the edge of my seat.  Gretta’s specialty was combining jumps; completing as many as three in a sequence.  She wore a big smile as she launched into a long, spiral glide past the judges (smiles are always good for the judges).  There were twelve skaters in the finals, and the quality of the skating was so high that it was hard to guess the winning positions.  A small crowd hung around the bulletin board waiting for the results to be posted, then shouts and squeals erupted as the competitors hugged each other once the winners were known.  Gretta placed fourth, so she had to put her skates back on for the awards ceremony and podium pictures, which occurred at a meeting room in the rink.

On our final day in Lake Placid, with the competition behind us, Gretta and I were in a relaxed mood as we walked out onto the sunny sidewalk in the crisp mountain air.  We decided to walk around Mirror Lake on the quiet Sunday morning.  It was a great way to say good-bye to Lake Placid.  As we walked past the shops I noticed a woman just ahead of us standing by her BMW, smacking the parking meter with her hand.

She turned and said with disgust, “These pahkin’ meetahs SUCK!

We had just witnessed a New York moment…watching the urban and rural worlds collide in the short verbal blast.  The woman’s accent in the rural setting grated on our Midwestern sensibilities, but Gretta and I didn’t let her attitude affect us.  It was a petty irritation on such a beautiful day.  I just smiled as we passed her by, and I thought of all the great memories we would have from a trip to the little village in upstate New York.

A cool competitor.