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ON THE SCENE: The Empire State Winter Games keep getting better

February 8, 2019
By NAJ WIKOFF , Lake Placid News

Back in 2011, New York state pulled its funding from the Empire State Games. While the Summer Games soon faded away, the Winter Games are stronger than ever as a result of the state Olympic Regional Development Authority, Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism, volunteers, local governments, other sports agencies and the business sector stepping in.

Today the Empire State Winter Games are the most significant winter sporting event of its kind in the nation, welcoming more than 2,100 athletes competing in an expanding number of venues across the Adirondack Region. Fittingly, Scott Kingsley, chief operating officer of Community Bank NA, the Empire State Winter Games' title sponsor, ran the last leg of the torch relay from Saranac Avenue to the Olympic Center.

"Supporting the Empire Games is important not only to our customers but to all the residents of the region as it features events like snowshoeing, hockey, skating, and skiing that are part of living here," said Kingsley.

Article Photos

Torch runner Eileen Mowrey passes the Empire State Winter Games torch to Scott Kingsley, chief operating officer of Community Bank NA.
(Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

Kingsley is no stranger to the community. He grew up in the Canton-Potsdam area, played hockey as a youth competing in the arena, and proposed to his wife outside near Mirror Lake following an early Scott Hamilton ice show one late December evening when it was 2 degrees below zero. And 10 years ago, he took up snowshoe racing. "I love it," he said.

Eileen Mowrey, of Lake Clear, who passed the torch on to Kingsley, is also profoundly connected to the North Country. Mowrey is a member of the relay that ran the torch from Buffalo to Lake Placid. She said she was involved with the games last year and decided to do the torch because the feels the games are a great community event and a way of bringing together people from across the state.

An expanding array of events is providing more reasons for people from across the state and beyond to attend, with some athletes competing in more than one sport. As an example, the Wilson sisters, of Bloomingdale, participated in the figure skating competition Saturday morning and were out racing down the bobsled run the same afternoon where they placed third in the Lightweight Division.

"My girls, Megan, 15, and Lisa, 13, competed in Empire figure skating this morning, and now they're here trading their skates for spikes so they can bobsled this afternoon," said father Eric Wilson. "They're not ready to hang up the skates yet, but they do like bobsledding."

"I like the contrast between the two sports," said Lisa, the bobsled driver. "They are just different. I like skating better because I've been doing it for a while."

"I like the speed in bobsled, but skating is my favorite so far," said Megan.

If that's not a big enough stretch, imagine Spanish parents living in Madrid getting an excited call from their son asking for their permission to compete in a bobsled race, a sport he's never done or dreamed of before.

"It's OK, Ma; I'll be coached by my American 'father' and an Aussie bobsledder. They're great!"

"At first my parents thought my racing in a bobsled race was a little scary," said international exchange student Alex Garcia, 15, of Madrid. "They also thought it was a very funny idea, and now they enjoy it a lot. I'm a driver. I've been practicing for four weeks. My goal is to represent Spain in some future Olympics."

Ashleigh Werner, a former rugby athlete who races for Australia, was volunteering at the track and helping coach the athletes.

"Coming from a very summer-focused nation, getting involved in winter sports sparks different emotions by one's family and friends," said Werner, who had been giving Garcia pointers. "I think my parents try not to think about my being a bobsledder. My mom describes it as that 'thing I do in the winter time.' My friends think it's pretty badass."

Over in the 1932 arena, another sport not for the faint of heart is short-track speedskating, something like roller derby on ice powered by Porches. The athletes, coaches and parents had high praise for ORDA's upgrades to the timing equipment, and the padding used to protect the athletes when they crash into the boards. They hope ORDA, with its new hardware on hand, will bid for hosting national and World Cup championships and include short-track in the 2023 World University Games in Lake Placid as they believe doing so will stimulate more interest in the sport and enable them to make a case for more ice time in their home venues.

"Short-track is exciting to watch," said Kirsten Sheen, of Wellesley, Massachusetts. "My daughter Serene, 11, loves it. She's been skating for three years. I like that everyone starts at the same footing. There is no bias in judging. It's just who's the fastest. End of story."

"I like going fast," said Serene, an often-expressed statement by the short-track crowd.

Young people get attracted to their sports in a variety of ways. For bobsledder Julian Riegel, back for his second year of racing, he was inspired to take up the sport by playing a video game.

"I got into bobsledding because my friend Hunter needed a push partner," said Will Tansey, 15, of Keene Valley. "I decided to go with him and fell in love with the sport."

Tansey's friend Hunter Buysee, also of Keene, was inspired by visiting the track as a youth and talking with family friend Wade Whitney. For short-track athlete Hannah King, it was accepting an invitation to go skating with her aunt, a five-time Olympian in speedskating.

Across sports, athletes praised the conditions.

"The course was awesome today," said cross-country skiing competitor Alex Fragomeni, of Saratoga Springs. "It was perfectly groomed. I liked the scenery. It was a fun race. The mass start can be chaotic at times, but today we were well spread out. We were able to go."

Crucial for all athletes I spoke with was their familys' support. Fragomeni's mom and sister were cheering him on. His sister, Bella, expressed how being together in Lake Placid, those who raced and those who cheered them on, brought everyone together.

"I feel like we are a family when are all at a race together," said Bella.

"My wife Sue is in the race," said Tim Bingham, of Manlius. "Sue liked the race so much last year we decided to come back. She likes skiing. She's always been very competitive, and it's such a great atmosphere up here. We love the town."

As for their daughter Claire, 11, she plans to race next year.



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