Lake Placid Commits to its Roots with Oval Overhaul

by Caitlin Moyer

Speed skating in Lake Placid, New York is as synonymous as the Yankees are with New York City. Dating back to the turn of the century, Lake Placid has been one of the world's most popular winter destinations, so the sport was a natural fit.

Some of the United States’ earliest speed skating success came from skaters in Lake Placid and the surrounding Adirondack region like Charles Jewtraw, who won the very first winter Olympic Gold Medal at the 1924 Games in France, as well as Jack Shea, who won the 500m and 1500m events at the 1932 Olympics, the first to be held in locally in Lake Placid.

Irving Jaffee is another New York native who shared the title as most successful competitor at the Olympic Games by taking Gold Medals in the 5000m and the 10000m races in Lake Placid that year.

And, Henry Uihlein, one of the official starters during those Games, helped increase interest in the local Adirondack Speedskating Club in the years to follow; the sport became so popular in the 50s, 60s and 70s that each of the tri-lakes area schools-Tupper Lake, Saranac Lake, and Lake Placid- had its own 400m oval.

Local athletes like Bunny Sheffield, Herbert and Curtis Stephens, Gordon McKellen, Jr., Stanley Benham, Art Devlin, Jay Rand, Bud Colby, John Viscome, Joe Lamb, Joe Pete Wilson and many others thrived during this time.

In 1974, Lake Placid won the bid to host its second Winter Olympics Games and in 1977, construction began on a new refrigerated outdoor speed-skating oval in preparation for the 1980 competition. US Speedskating greatness shined once again at those Games, with Eric Heiden’s 5 Gold Medals, Leah Poulos-Mueller’s 2 Silver Medals in the 500m and 1000m, and Beth Heiden’s Bronze in the Ladies 3000m.

While the Games brought great attention to the region and the athletes brought great success to the sport, in the early 1980s speed skating in the Lake Placid area took a slight downturn, greatly attributed to the local Pee Wee Association absorbing the Adirondack Speedskating Club and dropping the speed skating portion of their program. This move threatened to jeopardize the local speed skating club's long-standing history and youth participation in the sport.

However, in 1989 local business owners John Dimon and Tom Miller worked together to bring the Adirondack Speedskating Club back. Dimon and Miller realized that unlike all the other town programs that were totally free to the local youth, they would have to develop a program that was affordable, had successful coaching and was, of course, fun for the skaters. Working with the Lake Placid After-School Program and the National Sports Academy in the 1990s, the revitalized Adirondack Speedskating Club averaged 30 skaters per training session. Local businesses stepped up and donated cash and prizes for the cost of running local meets again. The local auto parts store sponsored a 15 passenger van so the club had a vehicle to travel to meets on the East Coast.

The Uihlein Foundation, the foundation of the late Henry Uihlein, one of the original supporters of the club, approached the club about starting a youth skating program, which would allow children to experience speed skating for little to no cost. In honor of his memory, they named it Henry’s Kids. They also developed numerous other programs and competitions.

The 1990s resurgence wasn’t just at the local club level. US Speedskating developed a residential program at the U.S. Olympic Training Center (USOTC) in Lake Placid which produced many Olympians and Olympic Medals.

In 1996 the highly-decorated Apolo Ohno moved into the USOTC US Speedskating residential center. Other Olympians who were part of the system include Shani Davis, Daniel Weinstein, Caroline Hallisey-Kepka, Karen Cashman, John Coyle, Randy Bartz, Darcie Dohnal, Eric Flaim, Erin Gleason, Tony Goskowicz, Tommy O’Hare, Amy Peterson and so many more.

But, as with all things in life, things in the speed skating world are always changing. Due to USOTC funding cuts this led to the closure of the resident program and the center itself moved twice, eventually making its permanent home in Salt Lake City, UT.

Still, Adirondack Speedskating Club continued to grow, offering junior level skaters the chance to live and train on its oval, producing successful athletes like Esther Munoz and Sydney Terpening who each qualified for Jr. Long Track World Championship Teams through the program. And Lake Placid still held world competitions like World Sprints and All Arounds.

Despite these setbacks, today, the future is looking very bright not only for the local club but also for the East Coast and US Speedskating. The Adirondack Speedskating Club is now recognized as part of the original town contract and they are operating with the hopes of hosting national, international and world events again, which will undoubtedly lead to great growth at all levels of the sport.

Currently, the Club trains at former Olympic sites, but it is eagerly looking forward to the opening of their new oval in December 2021.

While talks of a new oval have been happening for years, this past March, plans began to be put into action with the state Olympic Regional Development Authority (ORDA).  The organization was created in 1982 to protect the state’s investment made to host the games, and is overhauling the Oval, the neighboring Olympic Center and its other venues.

“It’s about time,” said Adirondack Speedskating Club coach Tom Miller. “To be honest, I am really happy that when I go to run a competition at the venue it will be more enjoyable and less stressful. I won’t have to worry that the 45-year-old zamboni will catch fire again, that we won’t have proper ice, or that the timing system won’t be up to par. Everything will be modernized and new.”

At this updated facility, the Club will focus on building a year-round program that will include both housing and educational opportunities for its skaters. The Club also is preparing to host the 2022 Winter World University Championship and the 2023 FISU University Games at the new oval.

As the largest university winter multi-sport competition in the world, the Lake Placid 2023 FISU Winter World University Games, are expected to bring more than 2,500 athletes along with coaches and officials to the region. Student-athletes will compete in twelve sports throughout the North Country and Adirondack region including alpine and nordic skiing, ski jumping, nordic combined, biathlon, curling, figure skating, freestyle skiing, ice hockey, short track and speed skating and snowboarding.

Thanks largely in part to ORDA President and CEO Mike Pratt, along with the Adirondack Sports Council and the State of New York, improvements on the horizon include: updated refrigeration systems and a new surface; speed skating for the winter format, comprised of single distance, all-around competitions and Olympic-Style racing, plus opportunities to work with US Roller on developing an inline program at the oval for the summer; making the oval a year-round facility; the possibility of a new residential program, using the Games housing to offer affordable athlete housing; working with local and state colleges and universities to develop online schooling for the athletes who want to live and train there; and hosting possible future competitions such as the, Jr. World Speed Skating Championship, World Masters Games and/or Championships.

It seems that every day as those in Lake Placid watch the Oval being worked on, there is a true hope for an even greater resurgence to the sport than ever before.

For those interested in learning more about the project or volunteering, please click here.