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Ski jumping on plastic? How Olympians train before the snow flies.

In Lake Placid, N.Y., Vancouver 2010 hopefuls do helicopters into chilly pools and slide down refrigerated tracks. The town has had a virtually unparalleled role in shaping the rising generation of US winter Olympians.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 29, 2009

Cliff Field lands a jump. US National Nordic Combined Championship.

Alfredo Sosa / The Christian Science Monitor.


Lake Placid, N.Y.

In 100 days, they hope to be in Vancouver, sliding down flawless ice tracks, gliding over manicured ski trails, or rocketing off jumps in pursuit of the Olympic ideal: faster, higher, stronger. But as autumn burst into brilliant reds and yellows in this storied Adirondack hamlet, Winter Olympic hopefuls were rattling down metal ski jumps to land on plastic run-outs, doing helicopters into a 46-degree F. pool, and guiding their sleds down a refrigerated track.

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They are the crest of a wave, poised to roar onto the world stage this winter. Buoyed by communities like Lake Placid, where residents deeply understand the finer points of flying, free-falling, or just plain going fast on some version of frozen water, they are riding the momentum of one of America's most successful winter-sports seasons in recent memory: 2008-09.

Luge athlete Erin Hamlin – a New Yorker who trains here frequently – broke Germany's 99-win streak with a gold at the 2009 World Championships. Nordic combined athlete Bill Demong – who got his start in ski jumping at Lake Placid's Olympic complex – helped the US to sweep all three individual golds at skiing World Championships last season, making him a serious contender to win America's first-ever medal in the sport at the 2010 Games.

Those performances speak to the perhaps unparalleled impact of Lake Placid on America's rising generation of Winter Olympians. The town of 3,000 is one of only a handful to have hosted two Olympics – in 1932 and 1980 – a legacy that has created a unique subculture that is more Scandinavia than upstate New York. A crucible of Olympic development, Lake Placid has forged at least one athlete for every Winter Games since local speedskater Charles Jewtraw won the first gold medal of the inaugural 1924 Winter Olympics in Chamonix, France. Vancouver promises to be no exception.

Skeleton athletes' early morning prep

On a recent Sunday morning, as gray clouds glided swiftly across the open sky and hail foreshadowed winter, black-clad skeleton athletes – the folks who fly face-first down icy tracks with no brakes – warm up in virtual silence inside the hut at the top of the course. A bitter wind whistles outside, nipping at the bulky coats of athletes fine-tuning their bobsleds and whistling around those already stripped down to lycra suits.

It isn't game time, but the first selection races for the US Olympic team are just days away. Bob Cuneo, a NASCAR engineer who built the sleek vessels – he won't say how much they cost, and they'll never be for sale, anyway – mills around the bulky athletes who sprint, stretch, jab each other, and tinker with their runners.

Tools set aside, they strip down. The timing clock chimes, the announcer clears the track, the athletes yell to their teammates – and then two or four perfectly coordinated pairs of metal spikes pitter-pat down the translucent track.

Before spectators can count to five, the athletes spring into their sleek machines for a run that will last less than a minute – and would get them a ticket on any US highway, except perhaps in Nevada. They will huddle close enough to feel each other's breathing, and break their frozen positions only on the pre-agreed turns, where centrifugal forces can pull them nearly perpendicular to the ground.