Olympic upbringing: New program introduces Lake Placid students to their hometown’s winter sports specialties
LAKE PLACID — As the “Winter Sports Capital of the World,” Lake Placid has offered generations of locals the chance to experience outdoor activities like skiing, skating and sliding.
Many people who have been afforded those opportunities growing up here have gone on to become Olympians, while others have just enjoyed participating in sports they fell in love with.
But some youngsters haven’t been able to take advantage of all that Lake Placid has to offer when it comes to winter sports. A new program for local middle schoolers has started to make sure those kids don’t miss out.
The program is called JAGS, which stands for Jump, Aim, Glide and Slide. It’s joint effort between the Lake Placid Central School District and the state Olympic Regional Development Authority, which runs the Olympic winter sports venues. It gives sixth- and seventh-graders a chance to try out different winter sports at the venues where the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympics took place.
Paul Wylie, a 1992 Winter Olympic silver medalist in figure skating and ORDA’s director of sport, came up with the plan more than a year ago to introduce youngsters to the different sports. The school formed a committee last season to see how to implement the plan, and it became a reality this winter.
In its pilot season, participation was limited to 24 Lake Placid Middle School students and was designed to give them a taste of all types of sports in the area, including cross-country skiing, ski jumping, biathlon, luge and skating. Students meet once a week on Thursdays after school. The program was originally slated to start in October but was delayed until early December due a combination of concerns with the coronavirus pandemic and not-so-favorable weather conditions early on. Hopes are that the JAGS program will run through the end of March.
On Thursday, the group met at the Olympic Ski Jumping Complex to learn about luge and ski jumping. About 15 participants were able to attend, and on a crisp, sunny day, five Olympians and a few more local coaches were on hand to help them out.
“I really wanted to reach out to kids who may have never tried the sports that made Lake Placid famous,” Wylie said describing how the program got its start. “It’s a pilot program this year because we’re thinking how do we make this work for kids who have no experience, and my thought is we didn’t want to have kids come and just try something once. I wanted them to try and at least come back a second time and then maybe try it again.”
In addition to Wylie, two Olympic doubles luge silver medalists helped out — Gordy Sheer and Mark Grimmette, both Lake Placid residents — as did Marketa Zayonc, who represented the Czech Republic as a luge athlete at the 2002 and 2006 Winter Olympics and now lives in Lake Placid. The fifth Olympian who came out to talk to the students was Jay Rand, who is the supervisor for the town of North Elba and was a ski jumper for the United States at the 1968 Olympics. Colin Delaney and coaching legend Larry Stone, who both work with young ski jumpers in the New York Ski Education Foundation program, were also present to teach the youngsters about the finer points of their sport.
Sheer, the director of marketing and sponsorship for USA Luge, was excited. He also said he might find a diamond in the rough among the group of kids giving luge a try.
“It’s really important for us to find athletes from this region,” he said. “We’ve had luge athletes from Lake Placid and from the area on every Olympic team, and we want to make sure we can continue that tradition. We want to make sure that school kids can try sports that are so unique to this area.”
“I’m here because I love to give back,” said Zayonc, adding “We may be nursing a new Olympian here. This is all for the kids. You don’t have to have a skill; we will teach you if you’re willing to try. If they give it a try, if they like it, if they stay with it, someday they might be an Olympian.”
Thursday’s session began with Zayonc and Sheer teaching half of the participants about luge and showing them the basics of controlling the sled. Meanwhile, the other half was getting some ski jumping tips from Delaney and Stone. Then the youngsters gave the sports a try, with the lugers sliding down a snowy hill and the ski jumpers heading down a short in-run leading to a small jump. When the students got their fill of one sport, they switched equipment and gave the other a shot.
Olaf Carlson, a Spanish teacher in Lake Placid, has been volunteering with the program this winter. He said it’s great watching the youngsters’ reactions turn from fear to fun once they get accustomed to a new sport.
“It’s pretty exciting stuff,” Carlson said. “At first, some of them are scared to death, and then they’re asking, ‘Can we go a little bigger? Can we start up a little higher?'”
Lake Placid Middle School Principal Theresa Lindsay said she was thrilled that Wylie approached her with the idea, and added that even though the COVID-19 pandemic made getting the program off the ground challenging, it’s been a huge success in its inaugural year.
“It’s all about access,” Lindsay said. “This is the brainchild of Paul Wylie, and it’s a phenomenal opportunity. So many of our kids don’t get the chance to try out the venues.”
Lindsay said the program first started with skating at the Olympic Center because the students just had to walk across the street from the school to the rink. Since then they’ve been able to ride a bus to venues including the ski jumps and Mount Van Hoevenberg’s cross-country ski center.
In addition to volunteer coaches and ORDA staff, parents have assisted in helping run the program. JAGS also received a $5,000 grant from the Adirondack Foundation, with a good chunk of that money going toward warm winter jackets, hats and gloves for the participants.
“The kids absolutely love this,” Lindsay said. “These are kids that have traditionally not been a part of something, and now they are. They wear their JAGS coats with pride. They look forward to it every Thursday.”
“My vision for this was to get kids started so they don’t go through their whole life in Lake Placid without having tried some of this stuff,” Wylie added. “And who knows? Some of them might become athletes, some of them might become officials, but if they don’t, if they live in this town for a long time, they’ll have an appreciation for the sports and the venues here. They might decide they want to work here. They might be a snowmaker or a groomer. They’ll have a connection to it because they tried.”