In the 1970s and early 1980s, Tupper Lake had one of the strongest high school cross-country ski programs in the North Country, consistently turning out top-notch nordic skiers.
But in the mid-1980s the high school program vanished, only to reappear on the map last season with the help of a couple of skiers-turned-coaches.
Today, the Tupper Lake High School cross-country ski program is run by Sarah Bencze and her sister Margaret O'Leary, whose maiden names are Frenette. O'Leary is a former state champion and the pair were members of the 1977-78 Section X state champion cross country team that was full of members of the Frenette family. Section X boys, dominated by Frenettes and Tupper Lake skiers, also won the states that year.
Miles Thibodeau leads a group of skiers during a Tupper Lake High School cross-country ski team practice recently.
(Enterprise photo — Mike Lynch)
While the pair were members of teams that had plenty of success, today the goals are generally more modest. The goal is to establish a school program that will allow young athletes in the community to participate in a sport that is not all about winning. Instead, it's a program that gives students an opportunity to compete at their own skill level and learn an activity that they can participate in throughout their lives.
"I've been skiing for 40 years," said Bencze, whose son Charlie is on the team. "It's a perfect example of something you can do for your whole life. And I really feel like if you live here, you might as well enjoy the winter."
Tupper Lake is one of three cross-country ski programs in the North Country that share a close relationship. The others are in Lake Placid and Saranac Lake.
Tupper Lake is actually the only team in Section X, while Lake Placid and Saranac Lake are the only teams in Section VII.
The three compete against each other on a regular basis both in high school competitions and other recreational races at Dewey Mountain in Saranac Lake, Mount Van Hoevenberg in Lake Placid and on private trails on the Bencze's property.
"We're working together because we're so far away from everyone else," Bencze said. "One day we skied into Fish Pond, all three teams. We're really working together - Bill, Randy and I - and trying to keep it going up here and keep it low cost because of the budgets. We're trying to get the kids out - healthy lifestyle. I told all the kids the first day, 'Set a goal you want for the year. What you want to get out of it and work towards that.' They've all worked really hard."
The Bill that Bencze referred to is Lake Placid coach Bill Frazer and Randy is Saranac Lake coach Randy Young.
One of the biggest challenges with the cross-country ski programs is that students need one pair of skis for skating and another for classic, not to mention boots, poles and other gear. Getting into the sport costs hundreds of dollars, an amount many students can't afford especially right off the bat. Plus, there is the cost of maintaining the equipment through means such as waxing.
"I think last year I spent $1,500 on wax, and we could have spent a lot more by buying the real expensive stuff," Young said. "We go through a lot of wax."
But luckily, through the generosity of some local businesses and individuals, as well as the creativity of their coaches, the teams have been able to outfit their students.
The Saranac Lake team raises money for their program in a variety of ways. They volunteer at athletic events such as Ironman and receive donations in return. This year, they received $750 from Ironman.
The team also sells potatoes. The team is given several varieties of potatoes by Tucker's Farms in Gabriels at wholesale cost. They sell the potatoes in the community and keep the difference.
"This year, we sold over 3,000 pounds of potatoes," Young said.
These activities raise money and help build character among the athletes.
"The thing that is nice, too, is that it's teaching a kind of community volunteerism," said Debbie Young, who is Randy's wife. "The families get involved. You have one kid on the team, and then the brothers and sisters and parents and even the grandparents will show up at Ironman and help out. It's really kind of nice."
In Tupper Lake, they have fundraisers, but they also have benefitted from private donors. Last year, an anonymous donor provided money to the team. This year, Sharon Sayles donated the money she made from substituting in the Tupper Lake Central School District.
"(One student) was skiing on equipment we found in the dump, and then she donated that money so it was really nice we were able to get some stuff," Bencze said. "(Another) was skiing on some old boots that were my other son Willie's. We are able to pass that stuff on. But we were able to get outfitted with classic and skating skis this year, which is really nice."
Randy Young said people in the community also come forward to donate equipment. People like Saranac Lake resident George Cook who has four children who grew up skiing. Young recalled that Saranac Lake resident Jay Federman once won a pair of skate skis in the annual Lake Placid Loppet cross-country ski race at Mount Van Hoevenberg. Instead of keeping the skis, Federman donated them to the high school team.
The programs have also benefitted from the generosity of retail shops such as High Peaks Cyclery and Cascade Cross Country Ski Center in Lake Placid, who have helped out the teams many times over the years.
"I tell the kids, 'If you can get one pair of skis, we'll figure out something for the second, like your first year,'" Young said. "Then after that they'll want their own, if they are really skiing and they don't want a used pair. If a kid wants to ski, we'll put them on skis."
One of the battles that the teams have faced is getting enough students to make a team. Historically, both Tupper Lake - which has seven total skiers in the program - and Lake Placid have had years without teams and have had to partner with Saranac Lake.
Frazer said he was concerned there might not be a team in Lake Placid this year. Many Lake Placid skiers don't ski high school, instead opting to ski at New York Ski Educational Foundation because of their excellent coaches. While that benefits many top-notch skiers, it can hurt some of the more recreational skiers who rely on high school teams.
Still, there are benefits from having such a small team. Frazer said he is able to give individual skiers more attention and coaching.
"I'm kind of lucky," Frazer said. "I have four kids, so I can spend a lot of time working on technique, doing certain types of training, which really helps them a lot. We'll work with different skills at practice and stuff like that."
Lake Placid also benefits from the many recreational races that take place nearby, including the Lake Placid Loppet. He pointed out that Lake Placid skier Nicholas Stosiek recently took first in the 13- to 17-year-old category in the 25-kilometer skate race.
This year, Saranac Lake has also benefitted from having athletes from Beekmantown on the team. Overall, they have 40 students in the program, including modified and varsity.
"It's as big as its ever been," Randy Young said. "It's bigger than it's ever been. I see it as growing."
Perhaps what's happening in Saranac Lake is that students such as eighth-grader Jason Martin, who joined the team this winter, are finding out how enjoyable it is. After being reluctant to sign up, Martin found it was just the type of activity to get him through the long winter.
"I kind of said no at first, then I tried it and I started to like it," Martin said. "It keeps me out of the house, and it keeps me active."