Not quite, but those ramps do launch daring human sky riders into the sky on a flight far down a hill to a landing area smaller than an aircraft carrier deck. For three Midwesterners arriving in Lake Placid, the site of the two winter Olympics, the ski jumping towers are very much an alien site.
Television does not do justice to the glory of any sport. Never is that more true than during the winter Olympics. The majesty of the ski jumps or the snaking outline of the bobsled run on the side of a mountain must be seen. The downhill ski run on Whiteface Mountain, defying the bonds of gravity, can only be truly appreciated while surveying the steep angles of death from a gondola inching it way up the mountain. Even in the summer with melted snow feeding the streams filled with kayakers and fly fishermen, the beauty of Lake Placid is a stunning site.
Lake Placid hosted winter Olympics in 1932 and 1980. The 1980 games are best known for the “Miracle on Ice”, when a group of American amateur hockey players bonded together under the stern direction of coach Herb Brooks and shocked the world by defeating the seeming invincible Soviet Union team en route to Olympic gold.
Do we “believe in miracles” as Al Michaels asked on ABC that day long ago? Yes, we do. Our first stop in Lake Placid? The famed hockey arena.
There was a junior ice dancing competition getting under way. Ticket takers manned the doors. That is when the Brooks famed speech before the Russian game kicked in. “Great moments are born from great opportunity, and that’s what you have here tonight, boys,” Brook said. How could we allow tickets to stop our entry? “That’s what you’ve earned here tonight…Tonight we skate with them. Tonight we stay with them, and we shut them down, because we can,” Brooks went on to say. We looked at each other and mentally said, “Yes, we can.” We skated right past the ticket takers and shut them down by tagging along with a group of ice dancers, their families and coaches. There before our eyes was the small hockey arena where young Americans proved on that magical night they were “the greatest hockey team in the world.”
Even Kelly, thoroughly indoctrinated into the lore of Brooks’ famed speech, joined in the fun. Hardly a sports fan but ever the environmentalist, she strolled the streets of Lake Placid pronouncing, “Their time is done. It’s over. I’m sick and tired of hearing how Sunflower deserves another coal plant. Screw ’em.” We rolled with laughter.
Rolling through Lake Placid is hardly easy. The village that prides itself on being the little town that could by hosting two Olympics swells with tourists both summer and winter with pricing for food, drink and housing alarmingly high. Walking the streets, we experienced what I call “crapmanity”, defined as a crap load of humanity who are just in your way.
Add to that crapmanity a hoard of tricycle motorcycles that swarm the streets like a plague of locusts. These Can-Am Roadsters, created by Canadian manufacturer Bombardier just north of the area, seemed to reproduce right before our eyes. Forget the fear of the gigantic man-eating alligator that once terrorized the community in the campy classic Lake Placid. The new worry is that these three-wheeled beasts will soon consume the citizenry in some new horrific Transformer terror. Ridden almost exclusively by senior citizens, the trikes had hardly been seen before nearing Lake Placid and quickly faded from view a short distance upon our departure. At least for now, they remain contained.
None of these inconveniences kept us from enjoying our time in Lake Placid for very good reasons. The Olympic venues all were so welcoming. Where else can students walk out of the front doors of the local high school and step on to the speed skating oval where Eric Heiden won five gold medals in one of the most dominant displays in Olympic history?
Every venue can be seen from the top of the Mt. Von Hoevenberg Olympic Bobsled Run. The biathlon and cross-country ski areas are just a short distance down the road. The ski jump towers pierce the sky with an equestrian park used for the opening ceremonies nearby. The ice arena and skating oval gleam in the village. Finally, in the distance, Whiteface Mountain’s ski runs scar the mountain’s face.
What excited us the most was the bobsled run. Specially wheeled bobsleds, using a series of roller-blade-like wheel tracks, take riders on a half-mile thrill ride through 10 turns on the lower portion of the mile run used for the two Olympics. With waivers signed and full-face helmets on our heads, we readied for our run that would reach speeds of 60 mph. With KU’s contract with adidas, I am sure we could have secured some sleek speed suits that would have kicked our top end up a few more mph. Curses for forgetting.
At least spike-soled shoes were not needed for the push start in the summer. The run was all concrete, and we were carefully placed in the sled by size. When the driver announced tallest to the shortest, I never hesitated. This was not a time for chivalry. That first seat behind the driver was where I wanted to be. Sorry Laura and Kelly. Heads would not be tucked down for Olympic-like aerodynamics. I wanted to see every twist and turn.
Behind me, Laura and Kelly tucked into their spots. A brakeman and another worker were ready to push us off. Waiting for our driver, I could see the rope handles that ever-so-slightly altered the steering of the front runners. Then I noticed the ankle tracking device locked onto our driver. Glad to see New York state’s work release program was helping us out. I thought, in cycling terms, how riders in a breakaway are told to “ride like you stole something.” Good chance our driver had. I thought to myself, “Let ‘er rip.”
The finish line speaker boomed up the hill. “Now on track, Jeff, Laura and Kelly.” We rolled through the first few turns picking up speed. The straights were so narrow that there was little room for any error if we were to reach our top speed. Each curve grew longer and higher as the sled began to climb up the wall. Popping down from each turn our speed was now carrying us into subsequent turns with boggling speed. All that awaited us were the famous zig-zag turns, a lightening fast hard right followed immediately by an equally fast hard left that set us for the final turn that was a real Neck Snapper.
Across the finish line in 42.39 seconds, we immediately began a steep climb that slowed the sled. Once stopped we climbed out to have our picture taken with our driver and brakeman. Those final three turns are what I will always remember. Again, until you see even a run like ours in person, it is impossible to appreciate how dynamic it must be to make a run on ice at full speed with speeds approaching 90 mph.
Our bob run was on a track no longer safe for today’s highly aerodynamic sleds. The old Olympic track has been replaced with an above-ground refrigerated track. Driven to the top of that track, we walked down its mile length, trying every stupid stunt we could conceive. We saw the starts for the bob, luge and skeleton sleds used in current Olympic competition. The signature turn with “Lake Placid” painted high on the banking displays track marks well above our highest reach. Plexiglass shields atop the fastest turns keep the sleds from flying off the track. Paint marks on the plexiglass from sleds or helmets testify to the need.
After the bob run we took ski lifts up the ski jump hill and then an elevator to the top of the 90-meter hill. Acrobatic ski jumpers practiced on plastic-bristle covered hills with a large swimming pool as the landing zone just a short distance away. We would love to return in the winter for a bob run on ice, do some cross-country skiing and much more.
We took one final look at the little village of Lake Placid and all its Olympic memories – which for Laura included a massive bruise on her left hip and welts on the forearms of Kelly from our wild bobsled run. We pointed the car in the direction of Vermont as the time had come to track down a well-known Burlington Lake Monster. Read about it soon in the final installment of the “Jacobsens in New England.”