While the summer version continues to struggle to get back on track, the Empire State Winter Games continues to grow.
As of Wednesday, with a day still left for athletes to register before the start of competition Friday, there were a record 1,421 athletes signed up for this weekend’s events in and around Lake Placid. That’s more than last year’s 1,167 and the 977 the year before that. It is also more than the 1,072 athletes who competed in the 1980 Winter Olympics at the site.
“It goes to show that we did the right thing when we decided to keep the games going,” said Jim McKenna, one of the event’s coordinators. “Our reasoning always has been that it’s something special for a lot of our state athletes. This might be their big sports event. It fills that role for a lot of folks. At the opening ceremony, seeing some of our younger athletes being so excited to participate in this, that makes us so psyched that we’ve kept this going.”
The opening ceremony is one of the lasting memories for Shenendehowa juniors Amy and Sarah Duclos, 16-year-old twin sisters who are members of their school’s Nordic ski team.
They first competed at the Winter Games in their eighth-grade year.
“It was really inspiring, especially because there was a motivational speaker there,” Sarah Duclos said. “Just standing there with all the other athletes on the ice and listening to the motivational speaker was really inspiring.”
The Duclos girls are just two of at least 13 Shen Nordic skiers who will compete at Mount Van Hoevenberg this weekend.
Athletes from the Capital Region are sprinkled up and down the official roster of registered competitors for the weekend, but the Duclos girls don’t do it just to see the same old faces.
“It was really fun,” Amy Duclos said. “I just like competing with people from all over New York who we don’t usually get to compete against in high school races.”
The variety of sports, too, makes the Games a destination for athletes. McKenna said the Empire State Winter Games is the largest multisport event that happens on an annual
basis in the United States.
“It’s cool to see the other sports,” Sarah Duclos said. “In past years, we’ve gone to the figure skating, the ski jumping and the speedskating. It’s just really cool to see what other kids my age are doing.”
There also are sledding sports, downhill events for skiers and boarders, women’s hockey and biathlon, which combines cross-country skiing with shooting.
Scotia-Glenville junior Matt Forshey is the top skier on his school’s Nordic ski team, but he prefers to compete in the biathlon at the Empire State Winter Games.
“Last year, I didn’t participate in it because there wasn’t a lot of snow, but [otherwise] ever since seventh grade, I have,” Forshey said. “It’s just something I’ve always been doing, and it becomes part of your lifestyle. My whole family has been doing it, so it’s fun.”
Forshey’s interest in biathlon began when he was in fifth grade, he said, then he got serious about it a couple years later.
“I really like shooting,” he said. “Seventh grade really kicked me off; I got a starter rifle. The races up there were pretty competitive when I was younger. Now there’s not a lot of biathletes up there, but it’s still pretty fun. Even beginners can go up, and it’s just fun to ski and shoot.”
He won his age group as an eighth-grader, and has advanced enough in skill to compete at events like the North American Biathlon Championships in Vermont, where he finished sixth out of 20 biathletes over the Jan. 24-26 weekend. As a 16-year-old, he competes up an age group against 17- and 18-year-olds.
Part of the reason the Winter Games have been able to continue without missing a beat is that they have a permanent home in Lake Placid, host of the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympic Games. Much of the attention drawn by that history lands on the 1980 rink, but Amy Duclos said the venue for Nordic skiing is not too shabby.
“Mount Van Hoevenberg, there’s over 50k of trails, which makes it an amazing place to ski,” Amy Duclos said.
The Duclos sisters will compete in the Nordic sprint and in a 20k race this weekend. Last year, they finished 1-2 — Sarah earning the top step of the podium — in both the sprint and a 5k skate race.
“They have a podium, but the ceremony is kind of small for cross country, compared to the opening ceremony,” Sarah Duclos said. “But it was still really cool to be up on the podium.
“There’s some friendly competition between us. We’re really close in racing. One time, we added up our results from the whole season, and we were five seconds apart. So we’re always really close, and that adds a little edge to it.”
“For the mass starts, we usually try to stick together and it really helps to have someone to ski with, rather than just skiing out there alone,” Amy Duclos said. “It’s motivating.”
The enthusiasm from athletes like this helps keep the folks at the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism and the state Olympic Regional Development Authority excited about running the event. They have also convinced the residents and businesses in the area to invest in the Games, and now corporate sponsors are getting on board. The torch run has had support in recent years from Stewart’s Shops, and Hannaford is now a major sponsor for the event.
The whole region continues to chip in in one way or another, displaying their pride in being such a large part of winter sports history and, hopefully, future.
“We feel a little bit of a responsibility because this is what the fabric of this region is about,” McKenna said. “We have to keep these types of things going.”