LAKE PLACID — Jim Shea paused for more than a moment, almost unable to imagine the thought of Lake Placid without the legacy of hosting two Winter Olympic Games, in 1932 and 1980.
“We’d just be a sleepy little Adirondack town, just a small little Adirondack resort,” said Shea, an Olympic skier whose father helped bring the Games back to Lake Placid for the second time. “It certainly would not have grown like it’s grown. We have built our lives basically around the five Olympic rings. It put us on the map.”
Since Godfrey Dewey brought the 1932 Winter Games to Lake Placid and Shea’s father, Jack, became a home-grown star, winning two speedskating gold medals, Lake Placid has evolved into a travel destination like no other.
The village, nestled in the High Peaks region of the Adirondack Mountains, was a pioneer American resort in presenting winter attractions to the public. Unlike many ski areas, however, Lake Placid began as a summer destination and remains so, with two-thirds of its tourism coming between Memorial Day and Columbus Day.
But it was the 1932 Olympics that made Lake Placid famous around the world. And with the opening of Whiteface Mountain Ski Center in nearby Wilmington in 1958, town leaders began dreaming of another Winter Games.
“The town was getting a little worn out,” said James McKenna, president of the Lake Placid Essex County Visitors Bureau. “Getting the Games again would be the tool to get the venues and get the town, not only on the map, but to redo a lot of the hospitality facilities.”
McKenna said the momentum to bid for the 1980 Olympic Games began in the late 1960s and quickly reached high gear.
And the village’s favorite son, Jack Shea — the patriarch of the only family in Winter Olympic history to have three generations of competitors — helped deliver it. (Jim Shea competed in skiiing in 1968 at Innsbruck, Austria and his son, Jim Jr., won skeleton gold in 2002 at Salt Lake City just weeks after his grandfather died in a car crash.) As supervisor of the town of North Elba, which includes Lake Placid, Jack Shea was instrumental in persuading Olympic officials to award the 1980 Winter Games to his hometown.
It proved to be a bigger boon than anyone could have imagined for Lake Placid, which along with St. Moritz, Switzerland, and Innsbruck are the only places to twice host the Winter Olympics. Squaw Valley, Calif. (1960) and Salt Lake City are the only other U.S. locales to host the Games.
Up went a massive ski jumping complex with a sky deck for tourists, a new refrigerated track for bobsled, luge and skeleton outside the village at Mount Van Hoevenberg and a new ice arena adjacent to the 1932 rink.
“It created a recognition, a buzz about the village,” said Ed Weibrecht, owner of the stately Mirror Lake Inn at the north edge of the village. “It put us back into the international limelight. It was a tremendous marketing boost for the community.
“I think the one change that probably came out of it more than anything else, though, was it became better rather than bigger,” Weibrecht said.
And the Olympiad became one for the history books. Eric Heiden won five speedskating gold medals, all outdoors in world-record time, and the U.S. hockey team’s “Miracle on Ice” victory over the Soviet Union is considered a signature moment in sports in the 20th century.
Today, the town has something for visitors in every season — from hiking to mountain biking to tobogganing onto Mirror Lake to enjoying fall foliage. Top winter athletes train and compete at its Olympic venues, so there’s often an ice show, ski jumping, bobsled or luge to watch, and the largest annual event is the Ironman triathlon in July, which attracts upward of 2,500 participants.
“We’re a region that appeals to singles, but I think our biggest appeal is the family because there’s so many other things for people to do — ride the bobsled, ride the luge, watch skating indoors, skate outdoors on the Olympic oval,” Weibrecht said. “There’s cross-country skiing all over the place, either on the groomed trails or anywhere you want. Snowshoeing. You name it, we have it.”
Over the past decade, Whiteface has invested more than $20 million in improvements, including a new kids campus. The mountain boasts 76 trails, 10 lifts and a vertical drop of 3,430 feet, highest of any ski resort east of the Rockies, and hosts World Cup events every year. In an average year, which usually begins in early December, 200,000 people, many from metropolitan New York City, will ski there.
Although it has had to endure its share of criticism — icy conditions earned it the nickname “Iceface” — snowmaking technology has changed the landscape and Whiteface remains a signature destination for skiers. Major improvements have also been made to its on-mountain restaurants and cafes, including the addition of a burrito bar in the Cloudspin Lounge.
Wilmington’s Veterans Memorial Highway, a Depression-era public works project begun under then-governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt, opened in 1935 and allows visitors during the warm months to drive to within 300 feet of Whiteface’s 4,867-foot summit and experience some of the most breathtaking panoramas in the East.
“What our research tells us, the attraction to the area is the Adirondacks, and with the Olympics that sort of allowed us to separate ourselves from the rest of the Adirondacks,” McKenna said. “Without those Olympic Games, the hotels wouldn’t have been retooled, the facilities wouldn’t have been built. That sort of makes us stick out in the crowd. We’re one of the few places in the Northeast that can now talk about doing almost year-round business.
“There’s a lot more excitement here about the outdoor activities right now than the Olympic activities for the people that come here,” McKenna said. “But without those venues being built for 1980 and rebuilt, we would definitely be a different town, there’s no doubt about that. That’s sort of the legacy. We’d probably still have a lot of the motels from the 50s — mom-and-pop places.”
Instead, hotels have been upgraded, and the town has a new Marriott Courtyard, an expanded Crowne Plaza and a new conference center.
Perhaps what sets Lake Placid apart most, though, is the charming and inviting Main Street, which features hotels, restaurants (from Italian to Greek to Mexican to seafood), eclectic and outlet shopping, and a movie theater.
The Olympic Arena where the U.S. team won that gold nearly 30 years ago sits at the south end of Main Street, and its hockey rinks have made it a hotbed for youth tournaments.
“People don’t come here because we’re an ex-Olympic village,” said Weibrecht, whose Cottage restaurant on Mirror Lake with its wood-burning stove and panoramic views offers a cozy retreat after a day on the slopes. “They come here for the lakes, the mountains, the wilderness, the ambiance of the community, the feel of our Main Street. Lake Placid is the original village the way it always was.”