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.

Alfredo Sosa / The Christian Science Monitor.
Cliff Field lands a jump. US National Nordic Combined Championship.

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.

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.

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.)

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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