Skiers praise new venue as Van Ho hosts 1st races

Lake Placid's Marli Damp treks through the Mt. Van Hoevenberg Nordic skiing course. She took third place in the U18 girls classic race in Saturday's NYSEF competition.

LAKE PLACID — In hosting its first weekend of racing this winter, the New York Ski Education Foundation had the honor of breaking in a brand new facility at the totally rebuilt Nordic center at Mount Van Hoevenberg.

The event was the annual Harry Eldridge Memorial races held on Saturday and Sunday, Jan. 9-10, which were both bluebird days weather-wise.

It was the first time that competition has taken place on the trails at Mount Van Hoevenberg since tens of millions of dollars were poured into the site to transform it into a world class Nordic venue.

And by all accounts, it was mission accomplished, both on the part of NYSEF and the planners who envisioned a racing center that could potentially draw elite Nordic athletes to Lake Placid across the globe.

NYSEF’s challenge was to hold an event safely during the coronavirus pandemic. First, that meant limiting participation to just skiers from New York state and keep the field at 100 or below, which was about the amount who showed up each day. Competitors ranged in age from under-10 to adults. NYSEF was represented by a large contingent of skiers currently training with the program and alumni, and there were good-sized groups from the Rochester area and Clarkson University taking part as well.

News photo — Lou Reuter Lake Placid’s Max Flanigan skis past the lodge during Sunday’s 10k skate race. Flanigan placed ninth in the U18 division in 35 minutes, 19 seconds.

NYSEF’s young skiers in the Devo program officially christened the course with a race Saturday morning, and the older groups followed. Racers under 16 competed in a 5k classic contest Saturday and followed with a 5k skate race on Sunday. Older competitors skied 10k events — classic on Saturday and skate on Sunday.

“Our Devo kids with the junior development program, they were our first race on the course at the new venue,” NYSEF coach Julianne Stemp said. “That’s our U10, U12, U14. They stayed right in the stadium, they had loops that they completed to keep them down here. And because of COVID, we had to keep things going and have a really nice flow to the race, so once we completed a race, all those racers had to exit the venue logistically. It was kind of streamlined that way.”

A Lake Placid native who grew up training with NYSEF owned both days on the course, as Scott Schulz had the fastest finish times while chalking up two victories. Competing in the U20 division Saturday, the former Lake Placid Blue Bomber won the the 10k classic in 29 minutes, 44 seconds, and followed with a skate win Sunday in 25:58 while competing in the senior men’s division.

Schulz is a sophomore skiing at the NCAA Division I level with the University of New Hampshire and has been back at home in Lake Placid during the break.

“Amazing,” Schulz said describing how a venue where he grew up skiing had been transformed. “It’s just incredible seeing what has happened here. It’s pretty cool winning the first races on the new course here. It’s a pretty brutal, tough course, world class. The hills were a workout, the downhills are fast.”

Saranac Lake's Daven Linck skis uphill in Saturday's U16 race. He placed sixth.

Lake Placid’s Van Ledger grew up skiing alongside Schulz, and he finished runner-up behind Schulz in the classic in 31:09. Ledger went on to win the U20 skate race Sunday in 28:17, which was also the third-fastest time for the men overall on that day.

“Anything within a few minutes of Scott Schulz is a really good accomplishment for me,” Ledger said after finishing the skate race. “Today, I could feel yesterday’s race. It was definitely a little different. The classic you have kicking and striding and this was more you were just trying to pour it all out. It was still really technical, but more about trying to force through.”

Ledger’s main sport is biathlon, and he’s heading to Montana to train at the beginning of February with the goal of qualifying to compete in biathlon’s youth world championships for 17- and 18-year-olds. That event is slated to be held at the end of February and the first week of March in Austria.

Ledger said the first time he saw and skied at Lake Placid’s new venue was at the beginning of December.

“When I walked in it was amazing and after having skied it for a month, when they say it’s a World Cup venue, they’re 100% right,” Ledger said. “This is ridiculously difficult. I mean it feels like a world class venue.”

Grace Mattern (Rochester) and Ella Henzel-Cronin (Honeoye Falls) battle their way up a hill. Both were racing in the U18 girls class, and Mattern took first place.

Other local racers also shined over the two days of competition. Andrew Scanio, a sophomore at Lake Placid, swept the U16 junior boys class 2 with wins in 5k classic and skate races. After finishing runner-up Saturday in the U18 girls junior class 1 classic race, Saranac Lake’s Sophia Kelting skied to victory Sunday, winning that division’s 10k skate in :33:29.

Lake Placid’s Elizabeth Izzo also finished with a weekend sweep, winning the senior women’s division classic and skate races.

“For our team, we had some outstanding performances this weekend,” Stemp said. “Fortunately for us, we’ve been able to ski the course pretty regularly. The kids knew the uphills and more importantly, they were confident on the downhills, and there are some big turns in here.

“We had some awesome athletes,” Stemp continued. “Scott Schulz, he’s an alumni and he’s been training with us because they’ve all had those extended times off. He was here and and he just crushed for a lack of another word.”

Normally, the Harry Eldridge races serve as a qualifier for the junior national championships, but due to the coronavirus pandemic, skiing at this level this winter is expected to stay on a regional level across the country.

Stemp said Mount Van Hoevenberg may wind up hosting another big race later this winter but none are currently scheduled.

“This is absolutely an amazing venue and it’s designed to hold a good amount of spectators safely and provide a world class course at the same time, so considering the other ski venues around us here, Mount Van Hoevenberg is definitely the diamond that could host an event at the end of the year,” Stemp said. “I just think it was good to be together, race together and develop some camaraderie and hopefully be a stronger region entering into a normal junior nationals next year.”