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One last lap

Speed skaters enjoy final weekend on the ‘old’ oval, look forward to the future

Jordan Craig photo Local and visiting speed skaters flocked to the Olympic Speed Skating Oval for the last weekend of ice. From Left to Right: Ashley Granata, Christie Sausa, Cherise Wilkins, Julie Gehring, and Dave Phillips.

LAKE PLACID — On Sunday, Feb. 28, more than 30 speed skaters glided around the Olympic Oval, enjoying their last session on the historic track before it was closed for major the following day.

The facility was built in 1930 as an unrefrigerated track and as the Olympic stadium for Lakie Placid’s first Winter Games in 1932. The venue hosted speed skating meets in the winter of 1930-31 before the Olympic Games.

For the games, it was the scene of the opening and closing ceremonies, speed skating races, hockey games and the start and finish of other events on the Olympic program.

After the Olympics the oval was the site of the 1932 World Allround Speed Skating Championships, continuing to serve as a skating venue and reused for other sports. In 1977, construction began on the new refrigerated track in the same location. It was reopened in 1978 and has survived over 40 years since its last major renovation.

“I was on this ice on opening day when it was redone to prepare for the 1980 Winter Olympics, and I was on this ice the last day before they tear it up to rebuild it for our future,” said Cynthia Patnode Carey of Jay. She started skating on the oval in 1968, at age six, and her mother Doris Patnode served as chairperson for the 1980 Olympic speed skating events.

Christie Sausa photo Cynthia Patnode Carey speed skates during the final weekend of the season at the oval in Lake Placid.

“There are so many great memories — skating with Olympians, being coached by Jeanne Ashworth, Jack Walters, and Shelia Young; watching Peter Mueller training on the Oval for the 1980 Olympics,” she said.

This season, Patnode Carey was at the Oval most weekends and during holiday weeks enjoying skating and coaching others. In previous years, she has officiated at Adirondack Speedskating Club and Lake Placid Speed Skating Club meets.

“I am grateful for the opportunity as a coach and an official, to give back to a sport that has given me so much.”

Dan Wood, a veteran speed skater and coach also spent more time than usual on the oval this season, which included introducing his grandchildren to the sport and skating alongside his sister Noelle, who also speed skated. Their father Eugene Wood, a speed skating coach and an official, encouraged them.

“We (my siblings) used to skate on the Oval in the 1970s, and I saw Cynthia (Patnode Carey) skate by and said to my dad, ‘I want to go fast’ so my dad helped it happen,” recalled Wood. “It was great to go out and skate again. You can’t beat the view, and it was good to see so many skaters from elsewhere skating here this season.”

Liam and Davis Kitchel of Norwich, Vermont had made Lake Placid an annual Christmas and New Years trip for speed skating on the Olympic Oval for the past several years. Last year, Liam competed in the Jack Shea Sprints and Empire State Winter Games meet, which helped propel him into a National Age Group win in Roseville, Minnesota a few weeks later.

They only intended to visit Lake Placid for a week, speed skating and taking part in other winter sports like Nordic skiing. They ended up staying four weeks.

“Liam normally trains in Vermont with our local club but it was closed down due to COVID-19, and he really wanted to skate because it’s been a big part of his life for the last few years,” explained Davis.

“As our time was coming to an end, we realized that, because we can be remote for school and work, we might as well stay in Lake Placid for another week, and then another, and then another. We were able to take advantage of a silver lining in this COVID world in that it enables us to be anywhere, and Liam was able to put together a late speed skating season and skate every day for four weeks.”

Like the Kitchels, many have chosen to spend more time in Lake Placid working or going to school remotely and enjoying winter sports, especially this year, when COVID-19 has made travel difficult and less safe. Many feel more comfortable traveling somewhere within driving distance or, due to travel advisories, neighboring states.

Despite the pandemic, Lake Placid and the Olympic venues — including the Olympic Speed Skating Oval and Whiteface Mountain — were busy with visitors and locals alike looking for safer outdoor activities. The oval, in particular, was well utilized this season, with sessions seven days a week for the first time in years. Strict COVID-19 protocols were employed which included outdoor seating for all sessions, occupancy limits of 150 guests per session, and contact tracing information being taken at the entrance.

For regional speed skaters, who experienced a dramatically diminished season due to COVID-19 cancellations and reduced practice time elsewhere, Lake Placid was a welcome additional training facility. Weekends were especially crowded this season with skaters from throughout the state clamoring to train on the outdoor oval.

Mary Brophy Magnus, a former U.S. National Team member in the 1990s, started skating at the Oval in 1977 at age 3. A skilled long track and short track skater, she trained and competed on the Lake Placid Oval in the 1980s and 90s as a member of the Saratoga Winter Club. She retired in 1998, after placing in the top 10 overall at the 1998 U.S. Short Track Olympic Trials in Lake Placid and sixth in the U.S. Short Track Championships, but came back to skating in 2018. Her last competition in Lake Placid was last year’s American Cup Short Track meet in February on the 1932 Rink inside the Olympic Center.

She enjoys the unique experience of skating long track outdoors in Lake Placid on her own and with her students.

“At the Lake Placid oval I feel like I’m home, and I love seeing all the other skaters, some of whom have watched me grow up,” Brophy Magnus said. “I like not knowing what the conditions will be, unlike skating on a covered oval, where everything is perfect every day. It keeps it challenging and interesting, and ultimately (makes you) a better skater, because you have to work harder some days.

“But when you get that perfect weather with fast ice, you realize how amazing this sport can be.”

Dave Phillips and Carole Moore of East Quogue, Long Island and Queens, respectively, have trekked to Lake Placid nearly every weekend to skate on the oval and ski.

“I retired last spring and I’m living the dream of skating on the most scenic refrigerated oval in North America,” said Phillips, adding that he had been skating and racing in Lake Placid for more than 30 years.

Meanwhile, Moore has participated in skating events there since the 1960s.

For many, this year had an added urgency, as the oval would close on a set date. Whereas in the past the season would often stretch into March, weather permitting, this season the oval and the Olympic center closed March 1,  to allow the next phase of renovations at both venues to begin.

Many skaters had commuted to other long track venues with more reliable ice times and consistent ice conditions, but a revitalized Lake Placid venue will be a greater draw considering that Lake Placid is such an appealing destination in itself.

“Having relatively good access to an upgraded and modernized oval will be huge not only for us, but for many people who otherwise might head to Quebec, Salt Lake or Milwaukee long track Ovals, so the revitalization will definitely inspire us, (and others), to return,” said Davis Kitchel. “I’m so happy that the oval is getting the attention it deserves, and this ensures that it will be a place where amazing memories and moments will continue to happen going forward.”

Brophy Magnus hopes the upgraded venue will encourage more skaters to train at the venue.

“I am hoping that our current top skaters will come and train here, and embrace the wind and the snow, being true to the history of the sport, and inspiring our youth to develop a long-lasting relationship with being on the ice,” she said.

As a local skater, coach, and official, Patnode Carey is especially looking forward to seeing the future of speed skating in Lake Placid.

“I am excited about the renovations. We have a beautiful speed skating legacy in Lake Placid and a dedicated group of people who will continue to build on that. I look forward to the upcoming local, national and international events that will be held on our newly renovated oval.”