OLYMPIC LEGACY: ‘Switzerland of America’

Lake Placid grows international sports reputation during the Roaring ’20s

Bobsledders take a two-man sled down the run at Mount Van Hoevenberg during the III Olympic Winter Games at Lake Placid in 1932. (Provided photo — Lake Placid Olympic Museum)

(Editor’s note: This story is part of an “Olympic Legacy” series to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the III Olympic Winter Games at Lake Placid in 1932. What happened that year led to this village hosting the XIII Olympic Winter Games in 1980 and the continuing legacy of training Olympic athletes, inspiring future Olympians and hosting international winter sports events.)

LAKE PLACID — Four weeks ago, Jayson Terdiman’s hopes for representing the U.S. luge team at his third Olympics vanished during a Jan. 7 crash at the World Cup in Sigulda, Latvia. It sent him into early retirement as a slider, but it catapulted him into a new career as a coach.

Less than a week later, Terdiman joined two members of the USA Luge national team for a virtual Zoom press conference: Sean Hollander, 21, of Lake Placid, and Zack DiGregorio, 20, of Medway, Massachusetts. They each sat down in separate rooms of a condo in Park City, Utah, and national team Coach Robert Fegg was outside on a separate line.

Fegg said Terdiman was still in mourning over his crash, but he put that aside to help out his teammates.

Zachary Di Gregorio and Sean Hollander of United States after their second run at the Luge World Cup men doubles race in Sigulda, Latvia, Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022. (AP Photo/Roman Koksarov)

“He’s out here helping wherever he can, giving advice, doing track walks with the boys and it’s fantastic,” Fegg said. “The way he handles that, the way he’s here for Zack and Sean to help them out on their first training to the Olympics is outstanding.”

Hollander and DiGregorio found the ice-bound sport of luge at the age of 10, but they only teamed up on a doubles sled a year ago, during an abbreviated season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And now they’re in China for their first Olympics.

They made the Olympic team due to the misfortune of Terdiman and his doubles partner Chris Mazdzer. The 33-year-olds were set to be Olympic teammates until the crash.

Mazdzer will still compete in the Beijing games in the men’s singles event. It will be his fourth Olympics; he won a silver medal in 2018 at Pyeongchang, South Korea. Terdiman, a two-time Olympian with separate partners, will be home in Lake Placid, cheering on his friends 13 time zones away.

This was no ordinary trip to Park City, the home of America’s only other luge run outside of Lake Placid built to international competition standards. It was the track used during the 2002 Winter Olympics. The new Olympians headed West — in their own pandemic bubble — to train before traveling to China. Terdiman donated his faster sled to the team, tweaking it to their style of sliding and working with them on their physical and mental game.

USA Luge doubles team athletes Chris Mazdzer, left, and Jayson Terdiman pose during the 2015 World Cup at Mount Van Hoevenberg in Lake Placid. (News photo — Andy Flynn)

Now it’s up to them. The doubles runs will be held Feb. 9, and the team relay will be held Feb. 10. They are the only U.S. luge doubles team in Beijing.

USA Luge — the national governing body for the U.S. Olympic luge team — was founded in 1979 in Lake Placid. Its headquarters is located at 57 Church St. The national teams practice on an indoor start facility at their building and train on the combined track for luge, bobsled and skeleton at Mount Van Hoevenberg.

Olympic legacy

Here is a collecting card with the image of Lake Placid speedskater Charles Jewtraw in his 1924 Olympic uniform. (News photo — Andy Flynn)

If it weren’t for the 1932 Olympic Winter Games, USA Luge may not be in Lake Placid, grooming young athletes into Olympians like DiGregorio, Hollander, Mazdzer and Terdiman. Their lives would most likely be much different.

“Ever since I started luge and visiting Lake Placid and sliding there, growing up I watched the movie ‘Miracle’ and stuff like that,” DiGregorio said. “So Lake Placid’s always meant the Olympics to me. Growing up through the sport, going there all the time, it’s kind of shown all the magic behind the Olympics. I think without that I wouldn’t have the love for the Olympics that I do.”

Lake Placid means something different to Hollander. It’s his home.

“If I wasn’t from Lake Placid, I don’t even know if I’d be on this journey, so I’m very grateful for that,” Hollander said. “But having a track in Lake Placid, the USA Luge team based out of Lake Placid, were all very pivotal in me starting the sport.”

Terdiman calls Berwick, Pennsylvania, his hometown as part of the USA Luge publicity. But he’s been living in Lake Placid for many years while training for the national team and bought a house here last summer. What does Lake Placid mean to him?

This is the gold medal won by Lake Placid speedskater Charles Jewtraw during the first Olympic Winter Games at Chamonix, France in 1924. (News photo — Andy Flynn)

“Everything,” Terdiman said. “It gave me my first taste of the sport. It gave me years, decades of amazing memories with so many great people.”

The real value of calling Lake Placid home, however, is reinforced when Terdiman competes across the globe.

“It blows my mind,” he continued. “We travel to a lot of Olympic cities when we compete on tour, and there’s nothing like Lake Placid. The town thrives on the Olympic legacy that it has, and you just don’t see that anywhere else. … Lake Placid’s been monumental in my career. It’s going to be monumental in many careers to come. It’s been monumental in careers past. It’s just a very special place.”

‘Switzerland of America’

A young Jack Shea (Provided photo — Lake Placid Olympic Museum)

The Lake Placid Club first hosted winter guests during the 1904-05 season, and its winter sports development accelerated when members created the Sno Birds organization in December 1920. Incorporated a year later, the group promoted a variety of winter activities on newly developed venues for sports such as cross-country skiing, ski jumping, sled-dog racing, figure skating and bobsledding. They also supported tobogganing, winter camping and ski mountaineering.

Lake Placid Club guests knew it was winter sports season when the Sno Birds flag was raised in December and lowered in March.

The Lake Placid Club launched College Week in 1921, between Christmas and New Year’s Day, which added to Lake Placid’s allure as a winter sports destination.

“This week is now generally lookt [sic] upon in this country as marking the opening of the winter-sports season,” explained the Official Report of the III Olympic Winter Games. “This arousal of interest in winter sports in the colleges has been the means of spreading the gospel of winter far and wide.”

By 1922, Lake Placid was gaining even more fame around the world as a winter sports destination. The ultimate compliment came early that year when the Evening Gazette of Xenia, Ohio, ran a three-column photo touting Lake Placid as America’s alternative to the winter wonders of the Swiss Alps. In the photo were Dorothy Brickwiddle of Lake Placid, Betty Walmsley of Washington, D.C., Princess Ghika of Romania and Jacques Suzanne, a noted explorer and sled dog musher living in Lake Placid.

“Why go to Switzerland when Lake Placid has everything you can find in the land of the Swiss and then some?” the newspaper explained in the Jan. 5, 1922 issue of the News. “The winter sports there are now in full swing, and the place is the Mecca for tourists from all over the United States.”

Other significant developments in winter sports in Lake Placid during the 1920s included the creation of the Lake Placid Ski Club in 1920 and the Lake Placid Outing and Athletic Association in 1926. In 1927, the Lake Placid Skating Association merged with the Lake Placid Outing and Athletic Association, which became the Lake Placid Athletic Club in 1928.

Also, local speedskaters continued to make headlines in the 1920s. A young Jack Shea was climbing the competitive ranks on the heels of his idol, Charles Jewtraw, who won the first-ever Winter Olympics gold medal in the 500-meter race in 1924 at Chamonix, France.

“We had a fellow here named Charles Jewtraw,” Shea said in an interview later in life. “Everybody in the community wanted to be like Charlie. I so looked up to him when I was a kid and I prayed that I could do that too, that I could repeat it and win gold. When it came true I was so thankful.”

Shea won two gold medals during the 1932 Winter Olympics at the age of 21 on the track in front of his high school (Class of 1930).

More than skating

While speedskating was the initial winter sport that put Lake Placid on the international competitive stage, facilities for winter tourists had been in development for 16 years by December 1920, when the Lake Placid Board of Trade discussed the Mirror Lake toboggan slide and the construction of ski jumps. During one of its meetings, a petition signed by 56 people was delivered, asking Lake Placid to rebuild the old toboggan slide from Signal Hill across Mirror Lake (Dec. 31, 1920, LPN).

The toboggan slide had been discussed at a previous meeting of the Lake Placid Skating Association, but villagers asked the Board of Trade for action. They also talked about adding other sports to the winter program.

“The opinion was that if Lake Placid is to become supreme in winter sports and live up to its reputation as the largest winter sport center in the Unites States,” the News reported, “it must have more than skating. … It is urged that proper ski jumps be constructed so that the many lovers of this sport may have a chance to make use of it. Skiing is fast becoming the equal of skating and if such jumps are put up ski meets can be easily arranged as many clubs have expressed a wish to come here.”

Lake Placid Club President Melvil Dewey — father of III Olympic Winter Games Committee President Godfrey Dewey — spoke at the meeting and talked about the Sno Birds. He also called for the development of hotels to support winter crowds.

“Lake Placid is known all over the civilized world as the center of winter sports and we have got to deliver the goods,” Melvil Dewey said. “We must get off our coats and begin to work. We must have along with skating, skiing and other sports. If the Board of Trade will push skating and coasting, the club will take care of the skiing end of it.”

The Club had already been maintaining several small ski jumps on its property. Club officials decided to build their biggest ski jump — 35 meters — on the edge of town at the Intervales farm. Construction was finished for the 1920-21 winter season, costing less than $1,800.

That winter, the Intervales ski jump hosted thousands of spectators to watch a ski jumping competition on Feb. 21, 1921. The crowd was estimated at 3,000.

After the first season, significant changes were made to the Intervales ski jump. The Nov. 4, 1921 issue of the News reported that Swiss national ski champion Antony Maurer would be the ski instructor at the Club that winter and would be making improvements to the facility.

“It is expected after these alterations have been made, under favorable conditions, a jump of one hundred and fifty feet will be made with comparative ease,” the News reported.

The new jump was unveiled for the Feb. 22, 1922 International Ski Jumping Amateur Championships. Ski jumpers from the U.S., Canada, Sweden, Norway and Switzerland competed for the Beck Trophy, Robinson Trophy, Peckham Gold Medal and Sno Birds’ Gold Medal (Feb. 17, 1922, LPN).

The next significant upgrades to the large Intervales ski jump came in 1927, when it was increased from 50 to 60 meters. On Nov. 18, 1927, the News reported that the upgrades were nearly finished. The steel tower was designed by H.S. Wetheral, a construction engineer in Detroit. It was expected that the new tower and grading would increase jumps from the record of 137 feet to 200 feet, under the most favorable conditions.

“The plans were almost identical with those of the new Olympic hill in Switzerland which will be used hereafter in the Olympic Winter Sports contests,” the News reported. “There is probably no other hill in North America that is so suited to training of the Olympic teams as the new 60-meter jump. It should be possible to stage any national or international ski jumps with satisfaction.”

Indeed, it was possible. The Intervales ski jump helped persuade the International Olympic Committee to name Lake Placid as the host city for the III Olympic Winter Games in 1932. The 60-meter jump was used for those games.

Ski jumpers compete at Intervales outside Lake Placid in the 1920s. This facility was owned and operated by the Lake Placid Club at the time and is now home to the Olympic Jumping Complex, operated by the state Olympic Regional Development Authority. (Provided photo — Lake Placid Olympic Museum)

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