SARANAC LAKE - A lot has changed for Billy Demong since that day in February 1998 when the then-17-year-old Vermontville native was treated to a homecoming parade through downtown Saranac Lake after his first Winter Olympics.
If he needed a reminder of just how much things have changed, the now-33-year-old got one Wednesday as he spoke in the Harrietstown Town Hall auditorium during a homecoming celebration for the local athletes who competed in last month's Sochi, Russia Olympics, Demong's fifth.
"What we do have is a very strong community with a sense of support -" Demong said before stopping mid-sentence, noticing his 3-year-old son getting out of his seat and walking toward the town hall stage.
From left, Lowell Bailey, Aidan Kelly and Tim Burke wave to the crowd during the March 26 parade in Saranac Lake. (Photo — Andy Flynn)
"Liam, sit down," Demong told him from the podium.
The little boy scurried back to his seat, and the crowd roared with laughter.
Demong didn't skip a beat, picking up right where he left off.
"- that embraces and pushes our athletes forward. I want to thank all of you that have been such a part of my long, long career, and all the familiar faces I see in the crowd today and coming down Main Street."
Through all that's happened to him over the last 16 years - collecting 22 career nordic combined World Cup podiums, nine wins and two Olympic medals, plus getting married and becoming a father - Demong said Wednesday there has been one constant: the support he's received from the community.
He wasn't alone in saying so.
"We're really really lucky to come from a town like this that helps us build our dreams," said Annelies Cook, a biathlete who grew up in Saranac Lake. "It took me 15 years to get to my first Olympics, and I couldn't have lasted that long without such a supportive community and family."
"Without the help of everyone here, I would have never been able to make any Olympics," ski jumper Peter Frenette of Saranac Lake, a two-time Olympian, told the crowd. "I just want to give a big thanks to everyone in this community, because it's a huge support system."
Before the pep-rally-like ceremony at the town hall, the athletes rode down Broadway and Main Street in a float normally used for Saranac Lake Winter Carnival royalty but retrofitted with Olympic rings, a "Sochi 2014" logo and red, white and blue tinsel. Joining Demong, Cook and Frenette on the float were biathletes Lowell Bailey of Lake Placid and Tim Burke of Paul Smiths, bobsledder Jamie Greubel, who's from Pennsylvania but now lives in Lake Placid, and luger Aidan Kelly, who's from Long Island but trains in Lake Placid.
A group of the athletes' parents and several past Olympians from the area also marched in the parade. They were joined by elected officials from Saranac Lake, Lake Placid and Tupper Lake, the Saranac Lake High School marching band, local elementary and middle-school children, and kids in the nordic skiing program at Dewey Mountain Recreation Center, where several of the Olympians grew up skiing.
Roughly 250 people braved temperatures in the teens and lined the streets, mostly the sunny side of the streets, waving flags, holding up signs and cheering for their hometown Olympians.
Jean Grimm of Saranac Lake said the cold weather wasn't going to keep her from coming out for the parade.
"I know Billy Demong because I'm friendly with his mother, so I have that connection in wanting to see them, and I'm very proud that Saranac Lake could have so many that could do so well," she said. "I think it's wonderful."
"It's great to live in a small town like this and have so many fantastic Olympic athletes come from this little town," Chantelle Kite of Saranac Lake said as she held her daughter Sophia along the parade route. "We wanted to come out and support them and say welcome home and good job."
The parade ended outside the town hall where Greubel, who won a bronze medal at the Sochi games, lit an Olympic cauldron. As people moved inside, a big screen showed a video Cook made during the Sochi Olympics of the games' athletes, coaches and volunteers dancing to the Pharell Williams song "Happy."
Village Mayor Clyde Rabideau recognized the elected officials and dignitaries in the crowd, then saluted the athletes' parents and the other Olympians who were in attendence. Ted Blazer, president and CEO of the state Olympic Regional Development Authority, delivered a brief speech in which he said the local Olympians have "become part of the character of our communities.
"Thank you from the bottom of all of our hearts for being so incredible and representing us so well on the world stage," Blazer said.
Before signing autographs and posing for pictures with their fans, several of the athletes gave speeches. Greubel, who moved to Lake Placid seven years ago, said she was welcomed into the community with open arms.
"Nobody asked any questions when I looked for three jobs in town, and I had to put my training first," she said. "For me to come here and have all of your support and really have people believe in me before I realized my potential in the sport - without all that support, I don't think I'd be here today."
Bailey talked about moving to Lake Placid with his family from Old Forge in 1991 and getting involved in the local ski programs.
"This area, it's unique in that a kid can start out barely knowing how to ski and then make it onto an Olympic team," he said. "Thank you for all your support, and here's to the next generation of Olympians. I know there's some of you out there."
Burke said people often ask him how such a small area can produce so many world-class athletes. He said it's a combination of the area's rich Olympic history and strong community support.
"Many of us up here compete in individual sports, but to get to that Olympic level, it takes a team effort," he said. "Our teams are not only our coaches, our family, but our community as well. That's why I know why we'll be gathering here every four years for a long time to come to celebrate our local Olympians."
Demong was the last to speak. He stepped to the podium wearing the same jacket he wore 16 years ago when he was first recognized by the community.
"This was the first Olympic jacket I ever received, and we can see why they stopped making them," Demong quipped. "Obviously the uniforms have gotten better over time, and there's been a lot of changes."
One of the biggest changes he's seen, Demong said, is the growth of the local nordic ski programs, particularly at Dewey Mountain.
"I think the size of the program is probably four or five times the size of any program we were part of as kids," he said. "It's something that makes my heart swell to see."
"This is a really special town," Demong added. "I don't think there's another public high school in the country that can boast that they sent five athletes to the Olympics this winter."
Burke, Cook, Demong, Frenette and luger Chris Mazdzer, who also competed in Sochi but wasn't able to make Wednesday's parade, all attended Saranac Lake High School.
Earlier in the day, the Olympians took part in a question and answer session with students at the high school. They also took a ride on the Adirondack Carousel merry-go-round.
Following Wednesday's ceremony, Demong, Cook, Bailey, Burke, Frenette and Grubel moved down the street to the Blue Moon Cafe for a fundraiser/party for the Dewey Mountain ski lodge project.
"At the end of the night, we had raised another $5,000 toward our goal, leaving us with less than $5,000 to go," said Chris Morris, chairman of Dewey Mountain Friends and a volunteer ski coach.
Demong's father, Leo Demong, said he's pleased to see his son work so hard for Dewey Mountain, even though he lives in Park City, Utah, these days.
"It's heartwarming because he lives 1,500 miles away, and Dewey Mountain's a genuine love of his," Leo Demong said. "He's voting with his feet, and I am proud of him for that."
Wednesday's events were organized by the Saranac Lake Women's Civic Chamber in partnership with ORDA.
Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or firstname.lastname@example.org.