A winning sports team, like a beautiful ice palace, grows out of a strong community. It’s no surprise that Saranac Lake has a long tradition of athletic achievements. From team sports like bobsledding, baseball, hockey, football and curling to individual competitions like speedskating and barrel jumping, Saranac Lake history is full of athletic men and women who left their mark.
Today, COVID-19 is disrupting so many traditions, and sporting events are some of the hardest to give up. The cancellation of competitions is heartbreaking for athletes, and it’s hard for the spectators, too. In small towns like Saranac Lake, sport brings generations together to enjoy a brief moment when all that matters is the kids on the field or the ice. No matter how fast or slow, each child shines for a moment. Over time, parents come to know each other’s children, and we cheer for their victories, too.
It might be easy to see the cancellation of sports as a First World problem. But athletic competition is more than entertainment. It goes back in early human history as a fundamental expression of human culture. From the ball game played by the ancient Maya to soccer around the world today, sports are a strong social glue across time and place.
This is not the first time global events have swept away the joy of sport. During World War II, athletics went on hold around the world. The Olympics of 1940 and 1944 were canceled. During the war, there was no Tour de France, no Wimbledon, no U.S. Open, no international speedskating. Instead, young women took to wartime work, and young men went off to war. In 1943, Saranac Lake’s champion bobsledding team, the Red Devils, left their sleds behind for the war effort. Bobsledders who served in WWII included names like Morgan, Latour, Bickford, Fortune, Keough and Duprey. These men’s athletic careers were interrupted, but their legacy lives on. Just look at rosters of Saranac Lake teams today, and you’ll see many of those same last names.
Sports, like history, connect us to community and provide a broader perspective. No matter what you accomplish, there’s almost always someone better and faster. Most victories and losses will fade with time.
It takes a lot of work and more than one stroke of luck to foster a team that history will remember. In the last few years, a group of standout coaches has steadily built a dynasty of cross country running in Saranac Lake. In the last two years, the boys team won the state Class C title. Now seniors, they were poised to win at states again. This time they had a strong chance to come out on top of all classes — all New York schools, big and small, public and private. The Saranac Lake team had its sights on the national race in Oregon. It was a once-in-a-century, if ever, opportunity for a small community. The pandemic has taken it away.
It’s not the first disappointment for the cross country team. Two years ago, they qualified for the New York State Federation meet, something that only one other Saranac Lake team had done before. But a freak snowstorm canceled the race, and suddenly the season was over. It was a huge disappointment, but what did the boys do? They laced up their sneakers and went out for a run in the snowstorm. Saranac Lakers honked their horns to cheer them on. A shopkeeper bought them hot chocolate. The team ran down to the new Aldi and bought themselves a bag of candy. It turned out to be a pretty good day.
The cancellation of this year’s championships is a big blow, but it’s no surprise that the team is taking it in stride. They know sports are about far more than winning. When asked how he’s feeling about it, one runner said the team is sad for the coaches. The boys wanted to win for them.
In our hearts, the boys will make it to Oregon. Best of all, we’ll be seeing them around town, running fast in the snow together.
Amy Catania is executive director of Historic Saranac Lake (and one of the proud parents of the Saranac Lake High School cross country team).