Back to the Future: The Lake Placid Miracle Roars On
By George Hirthler
If you haven't been to Lake Placid, take a look at a map of the State of New York, and it should be immediately obvious why this is a destination that belongs on your calendar in the near future. Just northwest of Albany, you'll see the huge green expanse of Adirondack Park, which, at 6.1 million acres, ranks as the largest Park in the contiguous United States by far. In fact, this pristine wilderness is larger than Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, Glacier and the Great Smoky Mountain Parks combined. As if that weren't impressive enough, Adirondack Park is also America's largest National Historic Landmark – and Lake Placid is the crown jewel of its wild heart, sitting in a breathtaking mountain valley only four hours by car from NYC.
George Hirthler. (ATR)
Everyone knows about the Miracle on Ice at the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Games, but that's only part of the larger miracle of Lake Placid itself, a magical village in the middle of an enchanted forest full of white birch, dense cedar and thick evergreen rising off the banks of ice encrusted rivers and creeks and lakes frozen in perfect white fields of snow. In winter, the place evokes the American past of Currier & Ives lithographs and sleigh bell chimes. Under Adirondack Mountain peaks rising 4,000 feet, the village is full of post and beam log lodges, antler lamps and furniture carved from the woodlands. A journey to Lake Placid is a trip back in time, but it's filled with all the modern amenities of a five-star alpine resort and all the current charms of your favorite brew pub. You can dine like a gourmand, snowshoe like a pro and work the kinks out in a luxury spa.
Winter sport is the soul of this community– and the life force that has empowered Lake Placid to preserve the architecture, atmosphere and old school ambiance that have been lost to progress in thousands of other small towns. At any bar, restaurant or shop, there's a good chance you're rubbing shoulders with a legend, Olympian, Paralympian, rising star, local champion or coach with encyclopedic expertise in one of a dozen winter sports practiced here year round. The town famously hosted the 1932 and the 1980 Winter Olympic Games and almost all the venues are still in full operation, many with year-round calendars of events.
Towering over the town to the north is the majestic peak of Whiteface Mountain, where the Olympic alpine speed events were contested. With a vertical drop of 3,430 feet, it’s the longest in the Eastern U.S. If you take the lift to the top, you’ll be able to see all the other major Olympic sites in the town – the bob, luge and skeleton track to the east, the ski jumps and aerial tracks to the south, and right there on main street in the heart of the village, the incredible Olympic Center, where the Miracle on Ice captured the world’s imagination and where Eric Heiden produced his own magic with five gold speed skating medals in 1980.
I’ve been to the last six Winter Olympics – Albertville 1992, Lillehammer 1994, Nagano 1998, Salt Lake 2002, Torino 2006 and Vancouver 2010 – but I’ve never seen anything like Lake Placid. In almost every one of those host cities, the snow events in the mountains are nearly two hours away from the ice events in the city. In Lake Placid, everything is about 15 minutes away from everything else.
Lake Placid’s unparalleled Olympic legacy inspired the United States Olympic Committee to establish a new National Olympic Training Center here in 1982, which the State of New York developed into a sparkling new facility in 1989. It’s a resident complex for aspiring athletes and elite Olympians and Paralympians – and it features all the requisite facilities and support systems to lift the truly talented to the world-class levels of Olympic performance. Generation after generation, the athletes come because they know this is where the gifted become great. And when they’re ready, they put the stamp of Lake Placid on the world. At Vancouver in 2010, there were a dozen U.S. Olympians who lived in or trained at Lake Placid. Over the years, this town has helped the U.S. Olympic Team bring home more than 100 medals.
Lake Placid is a year-round winter sports haven. (Getty Images)
The stories of those athletes are captured in the glorious artifacts that line the walls and exhibits of Lake Placid’s modest but charming Olympic Museum just off Main Street. It’s part of the Olympic Center, a complex that packages three historic ice arenas with the new Lake Placid Conference Center, a state-of-the-art facility that gives corporate clients a chance to mix sports-driven team building with the traditional business agenda.
But back to that map. The contours of Adirondack Park first took shape in 1895 when the Governor of New York decided this pristine wilderness was worth preserving. In the scale and scope of its idealism, it set a magnificent precedent that was destined to influence the course of U.S. history. For it wasn’t long after that that Teddy Roosevelt – who later created the extraordinary U.S. National Park System – packed into Lake Placid. He was camping and hunting 12 miles deep in the woods south of the town near Indian Gap when President McKinley was assassinated in 1901. They had to track him down on horseback to bring him back and swear him in as the 26th president.
While there’s no escaping the echoes of history and legend in Lake Placid, the reasons to visit are as immediate as the snow falling on the mountains. Whether you’re going for sport, romance, family adventure, gourmet cuisine or a corporate conference, you’ll be surrounded by awe-inspiring nature and the alluring feeling that you’ve discovered a world apart ... ecause that’s exactly what Lake Placid is, a unique alpine town roaring toward the future on the strength of its miraculous past.
George Hirthler is a consultant for Olympic bids and is known for his writing expertise. He is based in Atlanta, Georgia where he helped craft the bid for the 1996 Olympics.
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