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ON THE SCENE: Empire State Winter Games expanding boundaries after 40 years

February 7, 2020
By NAJ WIKOFF , Lake Placid News

Launched in March 1981, the Empire State Winter Games have grown into the largest annual amateur winter sporting event in North America.

With more than 2,000 athletes attending from 15 states and three countries competing in more than 20 different sports, the 40th running of the games took place from Jan. 30 to Feb. 2 in Lake Placid, Paul Smiths, Tupper Lake, Saranac Lake and Wilmington.

While there is much to celebrate, one of the exciting aspects is the increasing number of para-sporting events. This year, they included adaptive Alpine, adaptive biathlon, adaptive bobsled, adaptive cross-country and sled hockey, one of the fastest-growing winter sports in the country.

Article Photos

Lake Placid Mayor Craig Randall, in the back, is surrounded by athletes.
(Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

Para-athletes praised Lake Placid's warm embrace, support and advocacy for para-sports. They noted that at the ESWG, para-sports are held at the same time and similar venues as all the other competitions, not two weeks later and out of the media spotlight as they are at the Olympics. At the bobsled track, para-athletes demonstrated an innovation, push-starting their sleds for the first time in the competition.

"Not only are athletes competing in para-bobsled for the first time at the Empire Games, but we are introducing para-push for bobsledding worldwide," said Jean Brennan, a coordinator of adaptive programs at the games. "Typically, para-bobsled is an event where you sit in a sled, and there is no push. An official releases the sled; only gravity builds their speed. This weekend, thanks to prosthetics developed by Jeff Erenstone, they will run with their sled, hop in like able-bodied athletes, and, of course, their speeds will be much faster."

The games began in the Olympic Center's 1980 Rink with the arrival of the torch, concluding a two-pronged relay, one leg starting in New York City and the other in Buffalo. While waiting for the torch, the athletes, their families, coaches and officials were welcomed by Lake Placid Mayor Craig Randall.

The mayor highlighted the remarkable achievements by the 1980 U.S. hockey team and speedskater Eric Heiden, who won five gold medals, one at every distance in his sport. Randall said that the motto of the 1980 games was friendship through sport, a motto that he felt could be applied to the Empire State Winter Games, knowing that many attending would make friendships that they will carry throughout their lifetimes.

Then Light Balance, a dance troupe based in Dnipro, Ukraine, delighted the crowd with their seemingly neon-lit suits that flashed patterns as they hip-hopped in the darkened arena. They were followed by 1992 Olympic figure skating silver medalist and ORDA Director of Sport Paul Wylie, who skated with the torch, sharing remarks with Olympic hockey medalist Andrea Kilbourne-Hill and 1964 Olympic figure skater and now coach Tommy Litz. Figure skater Emma Whitehead concluded the welcome ceremony by lighting the cauldron to the cheers of all assembled.

Later in the hallway, the mayor said, "We have every short-track speedskater in the entire state of New York here, and it feels like we have all the figure skaters, too. I do not doubt that the future of skating in the Olympics is going to perpetuate. We see it every day with the families that bring their children here to play hockey, figure skate, and pursue speedskating on the oval. They are making a huge investment in their kids, and there are more people like them arriving every day."

One such arrival was Hailey LeClair, 13, of Voorheesville, who has been figure skating since she was 4 years old. LeClair came to compete in individual figures, as the youngest member of an open adult event, and as a member of a synchronized skating team. Hailey's younger sister, just 7, came this year as an observer and will be here next year as a competitor, as then she'll meet the minimum age.

Mary LeClair, the girls' mother, said, "I'm very proud of Hailey, but it's a bit stressful being a skating mom. You watch them practice four, five or six times a week, see how amazing they are, and then it all comes down to the minute and 40 seconds on the ice."

That pride was echoed by a delegation of aerialist skiers from Bristol Mountain ably coached by Johnny Kroetz, a team that's produced three athletes on the U.S. Ski Team over the last few years.

"We just love it here in Lake Placid," said Kroetz. "We come four or five times a year, which includes in the summer to do water ramping at the jumping complex. Our older kids were here two weeks ago competing, and our younger kids are here now. We teach mogul skiing and aerials. The kids are taught to have a great time, support each other and do their best."

Keven Burnside Jr., 30, was out at Mount Van Hoevenberg seeking to do his best in para-biathlon and para-cross-country skiing. His goal was to beat some able-bodied athletes, get some snow time and practice his shooting. He said his top goal is to make the U.S. team for the 2022 Paralympics in Beijing. First, he's going to the U.S. Nationals in West Yellowstone, Montana.

Over at the Civic Center in Saranac Lake, para-sled hockey was the name of the game as eight teams fought to make the finals held at the 1980 Rink in the Herb Brooks Arena in Lake Placid. A high percentage of these athletes were veterans. Caroline Frank, a U.S. Army veteran, said she took up the sport because it helped her stay active. Kathleen Garvy, also an Army vet, agreed, adding that it helped her deal with depression from post-traumatic stress disorder. Scott Thomas, a U.S. Air Force veteran, said he always wanted to play hockey as a kid but never had the chance. Their coach, who is a friend, invited him to try the sport, and at 50 gave it a shot.

"I've made smarter decisions," said Thomas about agreeing to be a goalie, "but it's fun."

"Sled hockey is very competitive," said Ben Eastman, a goalie for the Vermont Ice Vets. "It's an outlet for a lot of people. When everybody straps into a sled, they are on a level playing field. The sled is quite maneuverable. The sport gets me away from feeling overwhelmed by not being able to do things the way I used to."

"I grew up playing hockey in Buffalo. It was my whole life," said Paralympian Paul Schaus, who was introduced to sled hockey at Walter Reed Military Medical Center 10 years ago. "I like everything about the sport. To me, it's home. I've been on the ice since I was 3 years old. Just being able to be back in the rink, the smell of it, and hearing the puck hit the boards, hopefully going into the back of the net, is an important part of my life. I love it."

National Coach in Chief Chuck Gridley, who played a crucial role in bringing sled hockey to the Empire State Winter Games, said he's learned a ton from the athletes.

"I'm wicked proud on how they play, whether they win or not," said Gridley. "They are playing with challenges most athletes don't have. The game is the same. The approach is just a little different. The Empire Games is a great tournament; we look forward to coming here every year."



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