LAKE PLACID - The 1980 Lake Placid Winter Games and the aura it created in this region inspired a whole generation of U.S. Olympic athletes from the Adirondacks, including gold-medalist Billy Demong of Vermontville and biathlete Tim Burke. But it also helped inspire Ethiopia's first Winter Olympian - cross-country skier Robel Teklemariam.
Teklemariam recently completed his second Winter Olympics as the sole representative from the African country not known for its snow.
Born in Addis Ababa, the capitol of Ethiopia, Teklemariam moved with his family to New York City in the mid-1980s when he was 9. At the time, his mother worked for the United Nations. Unhappy with public schools in the city, Teklemariam started attending boarding school at North Country School in Lake Placid in 1986. He had attended and enjoyed Camp Treetops at NCS the two previous summers.
Robel Teklemariam carries the Ethiopian flag during the opening ceremony for the Vancouver 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia, on Feb. 12. He was joined by his brothers Yoseph (left) and Benyam (middle).
(AP Photo — Julie Jacobson)
For the 12-year-old Teklemariam, it would become a life-changing move. At NCS, he was able to develop his interests in the outdoors, a core component of the school's mission.
"He was very into being in the outdoors and anything to do with hiking, skiing, rock climbing," recalled his NCS classmate Steve Halasz, who now lives in Saranac Lake. "He was gung-ho into all that stuff."
Among those pursuits was skiing, both nordic and alpine. Teklemariam had his first skiing experience at NCS at a place called "Dining Room Hill," a place where students ski before NCS's larger hill with a tow-rope opens for the winter.
"I had seen snow before, but I had never done anything in snow," Teklemariam said. "I remember the kids packing it up, getting their skis and going out there. I just got excited to try it out. Kids were building jumps, and jumping and all that. I think I was even jumping before I even learned to stop or make turns. I would jump and then completely crash, and it was the greatest thing I'd ever done, so I'd go back up and do it again."
During the next three years, Teklemariam would ski on NCS property as well as in the local Bill Koch League. His first experience in a nordic race took place at Mount Van Hoevenberg. The winner passed him three times before Teklemariam completed one lap.
"I ended up not finishing the race," Teklemariam said. "It's really the only race I never finished."
That first year he struggled to learn the sport, often finishing way behind other competitors. But Teklemariam had the spirit to bounce back and try again and again. After all, he was developing a love of the sport, not necessarily a love of winning.
"He was in the sport for intrinsic reasons," said David "Hock" Hochschartner, current headmaster of NCS who was then a science teacher and the nordic ski coach. "You know, if you're in the sports just for the medals, you fall by the wayside. For most people, the medals are only a small part of your career. But if you're in it because you love the sport and you're into moving fast and being out there, you stick with it."
During those years, Teklemariam raced in Bill Koch League races around the Adirondacks where other young, future Olympians were developing their skills. A Jan. 11, 1989 article in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise reported Teklemariam competing in a Bill Koch League race in Old Forge with Demong and Burke, who were in different classes. Teklemariam is now 35, while Demong is 29 and Burke 28.
During those years, Teklemariam developed an interest in Olympic sports. Through NCS, he tried out biathlon and ski jumping, whose facilities are just down the road from NCS. He said the first time he got the idea for competing in the Olympics was at a youth race in Lake Placid.
"There was a guy who asked my coach, 'Where is this guy from?'" Teklemariam recalled. "Hock said 'He's from Ethiopia,' and the guy was looking at me and said, 'You should ski race for Ethiopia.'"
The comment was inspiring for Teklemariam. At the time, Teklemariam said he was often afraid to admit that he was from Ethiopia because there were negative connotations associated with the country as a result of the famine of the 1980s.
Around that time period, Teklemariam also saw a video about Abebe Bikila, an Ethiopian marathon runner who won the gold medal at the 1960 Summer Games in Rome. Teklemariam recalled that the combination of the man's comment and seeing the video helped give him confidence.
By the time he left Lake Placid in 1989, his goal was already down in writing. The evidence is in Guillaume de Ramel's eighth-grade yearbook, where Teklemariam wrote, "Guillaume, I will see you in the Olympics and remember that."
After North Country School
After graduating from NCS, Teklemariam attended Rocky Mountain School in Carbondale, Colo. The school was similar to NCS and provided Teklemariam with the opportunity to pursue his outdoor interests, which also included ice climbing, rock climbing and mountain biking.
At RMS, Teklemariam continued to develop his nordic skiing skills and earned an athletic scholarship to the University of New Hampshire in Durham, one of the top Division I cross-country skiing colleges in the nation. In his first collegiate race, Teklemariam wound up facing that same boy who beat him at his very first race at Van Hoevenberg.
"I beat him only by two places, but I gave it absolutely everything I had to make sure I beat him," Teklemariam said.
The boy was Jay Leach, of Old Forge, who was racing for Middlebury College in Vermont. The two later became friends before Leach tragically died in a climbing accident in the Grand Tetons of Wyoming.
"We kept in touch," Teklemariam said. "He was a good kid. His family even brought me photos in college from when I was a kid racing at Van Hoevenberg."
After college, Teklemariam pursued the idea of competing in the Olympics for Ethiopia, but because there was no Winter Olympic Association in Ethiopia it wasn't a real possibility. He returned to Colorado and became a skiing instructor.
Then in 1998, he had another life-changing experience while watching the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan.
"I saw the Kenyan team racing in the Olympics. At that moment, I was like 'OK, they're at the Olympics,' and I saw them skiing and I knew I was skiing better than they were," Teklemariam said. "At that point, I was like 'it's totally possible.'"
But before Teklemariam could participate, he had to raise money and create an infrastructure that would allow him to be sent to the Games. Ethiopia had never been to the Winter Olympics before so there was no organization to send him, and there was no money.
It took a while, but by the time the 2006 Turin Winter Games rolled around, Teklemariam had everything in place. He had created the Ethiopian Ski Association to raise funds and interact with the International Olympic Committee. Among the committee members were his brothers Benyam and Yoseph, both skiers and NCS students themselves.
Hochschartner remembers how much effort it took for the Ethiopian skier to just get into the Olympics.
"I remember being at a fundraiser in New York with him before he flew to Torino," Hochshartner said. "Most of his work last time around was to build an organization, so that in fact, the Ethiopian Ski Association could talk to the Olympic association and say, 'Hey, we have this guy here and we want him to compete.' He couldn't make those petitions personally. A lot of what he did last time around was to build an infrastructure of non-profits, so that's a little bit different from just being an athlete."
But Tecklemariam pulled it off and eventually lived his Olympic dream. In the Turin Olympics, he raced in the 15k cross-country event, placing 84th in a field of 99. It was a difficult race, but just being there was beyond anything he'd experienced.
"I really didn't even believe the experience until after the Olympics," Teklemariam said. "There was so much stuff going on before I got there. Once I got there, everything was surreal. It was like walking in your dreams."
This February, he returned to the Vancouver Winter Games after competing in Europe and cross-training in Ethiopia by rollerblading and cycling. This time, he walked in the Opening Ceremonies with his brothers, Benyam and Yoseph. Once again, in the 15k skate race, he didn't come close to the top skiers. He placed 93rd of 95 finishers.
Teklemariam was disappointed in the result, but thrilled to just compete. That's because the Olympics are about more than just getting to the podium for Teklemariam.
The cross-country skier is a pioneer in Ethiopia. His goal is to promote skiing to Ethiopians on an international level. He realizes it will be difficult to promote the sport only in his country, where the sport is nonexistent. That's why he is reaching out around the world. Just this week in Vancouver, Tecklemariam met with members of the Ethiopian community to teach them about the sport. His ultimate hope is to pass the Olympic torch to other Ethiopian skiers like himself and support them through the Ethiopian Ski Association.
"That's really the goal," Teklemariam said. "We would really like to be a permanent member of the Winter Games."