SARANAC LAKE - Hundreds of people packed the Harrietstown Town Hall the evening of Monday, Feb. 3 to celebrate the upcoming Winter Olympics and the local athletes who will participate in them.
This year's Olympics will feature five athletes who attended Saranac Lake schools: nordic combined Olympic gold medalist Billy Demong, ski jumper Peter Frenette, luger Chris Mazdzer and biathletes Annelies Cook and Tim Burke. Plus, two more athletes - alpine skier Andrew Weibrecht and biathlete Lowell Bailey - grew up in Lake Placid.
Although the athletes couldn't attend the event because they are already in Sochi, Russia for the Games, many of their parents were on hand. The opening ceremony is Friday.
Residents gather at the Sochi Send-off event Monday, Feb. 3 at the Harrietstown Town Hall in Saranac Lake. (Photo — Mike Lynch)
"This was great, and our communities are awesome, and the support that we have received for these games and for Peter and for ourselves has been unbelievable, absolutely unbelievable in all three communities: Tupper Lake, Lake Placid, Saranac Lake," Jennie Frenette, mother of Peter Frenette said.
Frenette's father, who is also named Peter, grew up in Tupper Lake. He emphasized that his son would have never been able to go to Russia without the generosity and support of the community. Because the U.S. Ski Team doesn't provide funding to ski jumpers, the Frenettes have had to put together a grassroots effort to get their son to international competitions and the Olympics. They've worked extra jobs and held community fundraisers to pay for much of his training and travel in recent years.
"I don't think he'd be there without the community," Peter Frenette said.
The presentation at the town hall was led by village Mayor Clyde Rabideau, who gave a short speech and then introduced the athletes. For each athlete there was a video presentation. Several of the athletes made special videos geared at thanking Saranac Lake and the surrounding communities.
The biggest ovation of the evening came for Demong, who took home a gold medal in the individual race and a silver in the team events at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Demong attained national attention for his achievements and was a flag bearer in the 2010 Olympic closing ceremonies.
Billy's mother, Helen Demong, thanked the community on behalf of the parents at the rally. Billy's dad, Leo Demong, said Billy has always been proud of growing up in this community.
"It was always important to Bill to come from a small town, and he loves the fact that he has the local support, and this meant a lot to me," Leo Demong said. "It was really special, and I really thank the local people for coming out in such numbers."
The event, which was called a "send-off" for the athletes and their families, was organized by village Clerk Kareen Tyler.
"I think it turned out perfect," she said. "There were people here who were babies, and there were people here who were 80 years old. Most of the people here knew one of the athletes one way or another, whether there child went to school with them or they skied at Dewey with them, or if they skied at Pisgah with them. ... Five hundred and something people are psyched.
"There's five kids from our school district, and I just thought there can't be another small town of 5,000 people who have five people in the Winter Olympics."
Many of those in the crowd were young athletes who aspire to one day compete in the Olympics themselves
"I'm very, very, very excited, and someday I want to go to the Olympics for biathlon," said young Adrian Hayden. "It was awesome, the presentation that they did."
The rally attracted plenty of news media. Not only were there members from local organizations, but NBC Nightly News was on hand with a camera crew to check out the festivities, which included the Saranac Lake High School marching band and chorus.
Rabideau said to have so many local athletes in these games is significant.
"That's why NBC Nightly News is here," Rabideau said. "They wanted to catch the small-town spirit, which really is the small flame that lights the Olympic fire."