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OLYMPIC HISTORY: Bialas a determined Olympic speedskater

November 20, 2014
By ALISON HAAS , Lake Placid News

Little did I know that when I first came across the old photograph of two speedskaters, that the skater who stood several inches below hometown hero Jack Shea would have one of the most inspiring and tragic stories I'd come to know in the decade I've worked at the Lake Placid Olympic Museum.

On the back of the photograph in pencil was the name, "V. Bialas" and "Lake Placid Diamond Trophy, February 1929." Who was V. Bialas? Shea's shirt visibly stated that he was representing Lake Placid, but Bialas' shirt said nothing.

The crowd surrounded the skaters, and they were clearly enamored with both of them. Young boys on skates looked at their idols, and a camera upon a tripod stood on the ice ready to capture the speedskaters' smiles as they received their awards. I would come to find out that this was not the first medal awarded to Bialas.

Article Photos

A crowd surrounds two U.S. speedskaters in 1929, Valentine Bialas in the light pants and Jack Shea in the dark pants.
(Photo — Lake Placid Olympic Museum)

At the age of 10, Valentine Bialas started skating in his hometown of Utica, and years later he won the silver medal in the two-mile race at his first International Skating Union of America meet in 1921. His competitive skating career happened to coincide with the rising popularity of speedskating in the Lake Placid region in the early 1920s.

In those early years of speedskating in Lake Placid, there were not many outsiders due to its remote location. Luckily for Bialas, he could board a New York Central train in Utica that would bring him to the Lake Placid train station. Nicknamed the "Utica Flash," Bialas set his efforts on earning money at home in the summer so he could train in Lake Placid during the winter with some of the best speedskaters in America.

His dedication paid off.

Bialas was 20 when he competed in his first Olympic Games in 1924 with teammate and Lake Placid native Charles Jewtraw, who became the first gold medal winner in Winter Olympic history by winning the 500-meter speedskating race at Chamonix, France.

The summer after the games, Bialas was hospitalized for three months and treated for severe burns, but he returned to speedskating. He became the captain of the 1928 Olympic team and went on to compete at the 1932 Olympic Winter Games in Lake Placid.

In 1933, misfortune struck Bialas again when a piece of glass nearly cut a leg muscle during an industrial accident, yet he rebounded and continued to skate. Remarkably, he returned to the Olympic trials and qualified for the 1936 Olympic team, but that would be his last competitive meet.

Traveling home with two of his teammates, Bialas' vehicle slid into the path of a train. When he jumped from the car, he slipped on the ice, and his right leg was severed by a train wheel. His competitive skating career ended on that cold, wintry night on Jan. 21, 1935.

The loss of his leg did not stop Bialas.

Although he was never an Olympic champion, his story embodies the values of the Olympic games. He was the ideal combination and balance of the body, will and mind.

I recently had the privilege of meeting Bialas' daughter Judy. The stories she told clearly demonstrated how her father was known for doing everything anybody else did, plus more. He continued to skate recreationally and was a successful local tennis player. Those who knew him say he never uttered a single word or showed any sign of despair or self pity.

When Bialas was recovering from the amputation, Judy said, he carefully arranged more than 100 of his medals in a frame he built. Clearly proud of his accomplishments, he slept with the frame hanging on the bedroom wall of his home.

Those medals now have a home at the Lake Placid Olympic Museum. Among all those awards is the 1929 Lake Placid Diamond Trophy medal Bialas received moments after the photograph was taken of him.

If you would like to learn more about the early speedskaters of Lake Placid and our collections, please visit the Lake Placid Olympic Museum on Main Street. The museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas.

For more information about the museum, visit our website at www.lpom.org.

 
 

 

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