SARANAC LAKE — Once an Olympian, always an Olympian.
Preceded by the Saranac Lake High School marching band and throngs of elementary school kids, local athletes from this year’s Winter Olympic Games and those of the past enjoyed the cheers of a crowd along a parade route Wednesday evening.
“This is what makes it all worthwhile,” crowed Chris Mazdzer, winner of an Olympic silver medal in luge in Pyeongchang, South Korea. “Even though it’s an individual sport, this is what it takes — towns, cities, villages — to make it happen.
“I am so excited that Saranac Lake is throwing a parade,” said Mazdzer. “Knowing that I have the support of the community is really incredible.”
The village had also turned out in force on Feb. 14 to watch Mazdzer in the Olympic luge team relay — a gathering he only found out about after it happened.
“The first I knew of it was seeing my dog on TV. I was like, ‘What’s Obi doing?'” Mazdzer’s dog Obi participated in the watch party, along with his many friends and supporters in Saranac Lake.
Although the Pyeongchang weather posed a challenge to several sports, Mazdzer said the cold “brought the advantage back to me” because he was used to sliding on cold, hard ice in Lake Placid.
“For me, it feels like home. I grew up in Saranac Lake, which is often the coldest place in the U.S.”
Tim Burke, a four-time Olympian in biathlon who grew up in Paul Smiths, said the windy conditions made the shooting part of biathlon very challenging in Pyeongchang.
“The wind was continuous,” said Burke. On the other hand, “Ski conditions were fantastic the whole time. For us cross-country skiers, snow that is hard and compact is advantageous. The conditions of the trail were the same for the first starter and the last starter, so the ski conditions were very fair. The shooting conditions were variable.”
First-time Olympian Clare Egan grew up in Maine but makes Lake Placid her home. “I’m excited to be in an environment where everyone’s excited and proud,” she said.
The biathlete said they practice for windy conditions as much as possible in Lake Placid.
“I’m disappointed in my Olympics results,” said Egan. She said the continuous wind made her focus on timing.
“It brings you back to your basics. Your reflexes and your timing become that much more important,” she said. “Knowing whether to wait or not [to shoot], more experienced biathletes have an advantage. I waited longer than I ever wait, but I hit all my targets!”
Bobsled pilot Nick Cunningham said the super-hard ice can be a little brittle, but overall he was very pleased with the conditions. The Koreans who set up and maintained the Olympic facilities did a great job: “You could tell they were putting their heart and soul into it. The ice was very, very clean, with not a lot of debris on it. Often when it’s very windy, you get debris on the ice.”
Cunningham said when the team had gone to Pyeongchang last year to practice, it was a month later in the season and the weather was completely different. In Pyeongchang it doesn’t snow very much, unlike here where it snows all winter.
“I would rather have seen a lot of snow on the ground to justify how cold it was,” he said thoughtfully.
After the parade, Olympians old and new gathered outside the town hall, where Mazdzer was presented with a plaque for Saranac Lake’s Walk of Fame on an outside wall of the Harrietstown Town Hall. Andrea Kilbourne-Hill, a Saranac Laker whose U.S. women’s hockey team won a silver medal at the 2002 Olympics, was honored with a plaque on the Walk of Fame as well.
Kilbourne-Hill teaches at St. Bernard’s School and is setting up a women’s hockey program at Paul Smith’s College.
Then the crowd moved inside to the town hall auditorium, where the high school band played the “Olympic Fanfare” and the U.S. national anthem and the Olympians, past and present, were introduced.
And Mazdzer was put on the spot.
In Pyeongchang, bobsledder Lauren Gibbs shot a video of Mazdzer sitting across a cafeteria table from her, eating a slice of pizza in one bite. Her Twitter post on it got a lot of attention, so master of ceremonies Eric Wilson decided to ask Mazdzer to repeat the feat — onstage in front of everyone.
Obligingly, Mazdzer made the slice from the nearby Owl’s Nest pizza parlor disappear in short order while biathlete Lowell Bailey howled with laughter next to him. Several minutes later, the luger was still chewing.
Before the autograph signing began, each 2018 Olympian on stage was asked to give a speech. Luger Summer Britcher of Pennsylvania received a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday” from the crowd — it was her 24th. Cunningham, who grew up on the California beachfront, said he noticed as soon as he moved to Lake Placid how much passion people here have for winter sports.
Burke and alpine skier Andrew Weibrecht of Lake Placid noted that although they have been to many Olympics, this was the first time they got to march in the opening ceremonies. Both said it was a highlight to represent both their country and this area where they were born and raised.
Bailey urged the kids in the front rows to strive for the Olympics and noted that he and Burke had been racing against again other “since we were, I don’t know, 6 or 7 years old.”
Mazdzer used his speech to counter a statistic Wilson had cited in his introduction: that a person is many times more likely to be struck by lightning than to become an Olympic athlete. Mazdzer told the kids not to believe it, especially in a town with so many local Olympians. He urged them to try various sports, saying the first winter sport he tried was ski jumping.
“You’re not going to be struck by lightning; you’re going to become an Olympian,” he told them.