Press-Republican

February 2, 2014

Bearing the flame, bound for Sochi

By KIM SMITH DEDAM
Press-Republican

LAKE PLACID — Focus, race, celebrate, pack: repeat.

The road to the Sochi Winter Olympic Games is a fast-paced, non-stop journey, flying from one mountain village somewhere in the world to the next. Ramping up this past few months, whether athletes earn a place on a team or not, delivers its own kind of wild ride. 

USA Luge, based close to the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, began their World Cup series in November at Lillehammer in Norway.

Travels since brought them to Igls in Austria; Winterberg, Germany; Whistler in Canada; Park City, in Utah; to Konigssee and Oberhof and then Altenberg in Germany; to Sigulda in Latvia this weekend; and culminating with the trip to Sochi, Russia.

Athletes who live and train at home in Lake Placid or grew up here have accomplished feats of both sport and stamina these past few months, all under the white-hot spotlight of worldwide media attention.

SOCHI BOUND

Lake Placid is pouring its best toward Russia. And the athletes carry a hometown passion for Olympic fire with them.

Among them is men’s singles luge racer Chris Mazdzer, who grew up in Saranac Lake.

Reached via email, he said he couldn’t have done it without family, friends and this community.

“Growing up in the shadows of Lake Placid and its deep Olympic tradition has always helped me keep the Olympics close to the center of my attention,” Mazdzer, 25, said.

“Every time I am home and doing errands in town people who I do not personally know wish me luck, and tell me how great of a season I am having ... even if I did not meet my own personal expectations.

“Regardless of my endeavors and results, I know that everyone in Saranac Lake and Lake Placid is supporting me and wishing me the very best. I think that this travels with me not only to the Olympics but also to every competition that I compete in.”

TEAM SPIRIT

Athletes from here headed to Sochi include Nordic combined Olympic gold medalist Billy Demong, who grew up in Vermontville; biathlon competitors Lowell Bailey from Lake Placid, Annelies Cook from Saranac Lake and Tim Burke from Paul Smiths.

Cosmopolitan Magazine recently picked “Hunky Tim Burke” as one of the 14 “Hot Guys to Watch” at the winter games.

And Demong is featured in a Visa Olympic sponsorship television spot calling attention to the games.

With lyrics blaring — “ ‘scuze me while I kiss the sky” — Demong tells the world he listens to Jimi Hendrix when soaring off the jumps.

Saranac Lake’s hometown son Peter Frenette earned a seat on the men’s ski jumping team and Andrew Weibrecht, born and raised in Lake Placid, is poised to travel with the Alpine ski team. Also from Lake Placid, Jamie Greubel is competing with the women’s bobsled team.

Doubles luger Jayson Terdiman lives in Lake Placid now and works for Adirondack Awards, the local award and trophy shop on Sentinel Road, when he’s not training.

“For me, and for all of us, it’s about keeping our focus on what we’re here to do, which is sliding in the fastest sport on ice. Competing in the World Cups going into the games keeps us focused on luge and not on Sochi: it helps to keep my mind off the big picture and not get distracted,” Terdiman, who is 25, said in a teleconference from Germany.

Women’s luger Erin Hamlin, who has made her home in Lake Placid now, is competing at her third Olympic games.

“I know what I’m capable of and knowing what to expect is pretty big. Yeah, it’s a big deal,” she said via phone from Germany.

“We get way more attention. But when we get to the ice, it’s all about focus.”

ESPRIT DE CORPS

Traveling with them next week is a strong contingent of experienced support team personnel, media reps and Olympic coaches.

Lake Placid’s Mayor Craig Randall and Convention and Visitor’s Bureau President Jim McKenna were invited to Sochi to renew tourism ties as part of the International Olympic Mayor’s delegation.

Sandy Caligiore, long an Olympic authority from Lake Placid, is press officer for USA Luge.

Doug Haney, from Saranac Lake, is the chief press officer for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association team.

“I can tell you that hometown support, from an area that lives the Olympic spirit, provides an extra push to the athletes,” Caligiore said in a recent interview.

“They know that knowledgeable people are following them from a distance, communicating with them, sending them best wishes. It makes being 7,000 miles away from home feel a bit closer.”

‘SO THRILLING’

At 19, Nina Lussi pushed ever closer to her Olympic ski jumping goal. Starting from Park City last summer, she earned a solid seventh-place in Lillehammer’s Continental Cup in September. 

That seat on the Women’s Olympic Ski Jumping team slipped just beyond reach.

But her experiences on the road to Sochi is exciting all the same.

“The amount of media attention women’s ski jumping has been getting these past few months is simply unheard of!” she told the Press-Republican via email.

Non-stop competition fuels the athletes and pushes them to do their utmost best.

“It is so thrilling to see everyone stepping up their game in preparation and every time you go to the Center of Excellence here in Park City, you know you need to push yourself further than ever before,” Lussi said.

Lake Placid’s penchant to generate Olympic spirit stays with her.

“The amount of support streaming out of the Lake Placid region is amazing. Some of my teachers from Lake Placid High School are probably my biggest fans,” Lussi said.

CAMARADERIE

The pursuit of good sports, Caligiore said, is what our region is all about.

“We enjoy watching and supporting international competition. We know that, for instance, the Russians that we are trying to defeat in Sochi are the same athletes that have skied at Lake Placid venues and raced on Lake Placid tracks.

“This also tells us that all nations are closer and have more in common than you might otherwise think.

“This is why a luge athlete from India has been training and traveling with us the entire season.

“This is why the Swiss lugers train and travel with Germany.

“This is about the level of brotherhood and sisterhood that’s only evident at the Olympic Games. And all of this camaraderie is what you bring to Russia when you come from Lake Placid.”

And so it goes to Sochi.

TRAVEL CONCERNS

Olympians are taught to put aside differences, play together and play fair. Olympic athletes do receive international training as part of their Olympic oath. With it comes an apolitical point of view. 

“We are not allowed to make political statements,” Hamlin, 27, said of differing views they likely will see and experience or be asked about while in Russia.

“It jeopardizes our status as an athlete.”

The U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) prepares them through an Ambassador Program, she said.

“We’re not there to be politicians.”

The Sochi games are set to begin in a stretch of mountain lands next to the Black Sea, a place often thought of as the “Russian Riviera.”

At seaside venues, Russia built the indoor skating arenas and the Olympic Park in the Imeretinsky Valley. About 30 miles north, connected by high-speed trains, they’ve established the skiing, sled racing and ski jumping venues at Krasnaya Polyana.

Caligiore said USA Luge teams have been to the Sochi track three times in the last few years.

On the first trip, athletes were astounded to find palm trees on the seaside landscape.

“When the team got there, they went swimming in the Black Sea,” he said.

But elements of historic wars fought over religious and cultural differences that divide Russia linger in the mountains, drawing threats from neighboring nations at war with their former “motherland.”

Terrorists bombs exploded in Volgograd some 428 miles distant twice last month, killing 34 people.

Sochi is currently surrounded by a veritable army of 60,000 or more Russian police, soldiers, American security personnel and even two American warships standing by in the Black Sea.

Some have questioned the location choice of these 2014 Olympics. The Washington Post last week said Russia is hosting the games on the “edge of a war zone.”

Olympic events have long marked passages of terrible times in human history. The 1940 Summer Games were set to begin in Tokyo, but were canceled when World War II started. Games were canceled in the summer of 1916 and in 1944, due to war. In 1972, terrorists attacked the Israeli team competing in Munich, the first held in Germany since the Nazi reign. Eleven athletes were killed.

Hamlin, 27, said she has never been in a competitive arena where she didn’t feel safe.

“I have confidence it will be fine,” she said last week.

Their approach intends to stay focused on good sports and sportsmanship and to play it safe.

“Yes, security is a concern insomuch as it’s becoming pervasive in the media in these final weeks prior to Sochi,” Caligiore said.

“But in our conversations with USOC leadership, and in turn, their communication with Washington and SOCOG (Sochi organizing committee), absolutely all measures are being taken to insure a secure Games. We won’t be out there trying to draw attention to ourselves ... unless, of course, we win medals!”

ENDURING

Months and years of preparation serve to propel Olympic good will toward the future, toward the next race and the next games.

“At 19 years old, I have not been at it as long as some of my competitors and I know that the U.S. will be sending our strongest team possible,” Lussi said.

“I have always dreamed about being an Olympian and being able to experience it from this side of the fence has been amazing. I know that what I have lived through this year will propel me forward, searching for my own Olympic experience in 2018.”

E-mail Kim Smith Dedam: kdedam@pressrepublican.com