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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.

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Meanwhile, at the ski jumps that rise up from the valley floor below, 15-year-old Sarah Hendrickson accelerates from 0 to 50 miles per hour in three seconds and soars into space. Her floating suspends time and reaffirms what every kid knows: that humans really can fly. Sarah's defiance of gravity won her second place at US national championships. (Ski-jumping officials hold the event before snowfall because of conflicts with the Europe-based winter season.)

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Training in obscurity

Citius, altius, fortius: the impelling force of the Olympic spirit doesn't only shine once every four years. It's borne out daily on back roads and often in relative obscurity – especially among those captivated by Scandinavian imports that never quite caught on in America's Babe Ruth culture. That's why Lake Placid, where some mechanics are former ski jumpers and the lumber store on the main drag is run by a 1972 Olympian, provides a unique home for these winter athletes.

"Most people that live in Lake Placid know a lot about the sports and are very respectful of their athletes," says luge athlete Ashley Walden. "I feel like we do get a big boost from them because they have the knowledge and they are also proud of it."

Today, some 40 athletes live – and thousands more come for camps every year – at the Olympic Training Center. They enjoy free housing, and a cafeteria that's open from sunrise to 9 p.m. Top sports facilities – hosting everything from trampolines to a treadmill for biathletes on wheeled skis – are at their disposal.

"Living here saves me three hours a day," says freestyle skier Ryan St. Onge, who won world championships in aerials last year after moving from Colorado.

That was what Lake Placid old-timers such as Ron McKenzie and Norm Hess envisioned, says Mayor Craig Randall.

"Those men believed that this community could take people and train them, and that was the vision they had – to become a permanent place where athletes could come and train, and training was the priority," he said, after a town send-off for some 200 area athletes vying for a spot in Vancouver.

They're part of a generation that has "bubbled to the surface" since Lake Placid hosted the 1980 Games – in no small part due to their proximity to so many different venues, he adds. "Knowing we have the opportunity to become figure skaters, speed skaters, ski jumpers, bobsledders – I don't know where else you can grow up and have access" to all these winter activities, he says.

In fact, the only place that rivals Lake Placid's venues is Salt Lake City – but, locals here argue, Utah doesn't have the same Olympic magic.

Referring to the US men's hockey upset of the Soviets in 1980 – the "Miracle on Ice" – former ski jumper Liz Mezzetti asserts Placid's unparalleled heritage.

"We've had the greatest moment in sports history for 100 years and that's got to continue," says Ms. Mezzetti, who now works as a marketing coordinator for the Olympic Regional Development Authority. "I don't think that can be outdone."

Placid also has a genealogy of success; the only grandfather-father-son contingent in the world to all become Olympians came from the local Shay family.

As Jim Rodgers, a member of the 1980 organizing committee notes, "It's almost genetic."

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