LAKE PLACID, N.Y. — Forty years ago, Eric Heiden wowed the world, winning five Olympic gold medals in long track speedskating on Lake Placid’s outdoor oval. The night before he won his final medal in the 10,000-meter, a team of mostly college kids stunned everyone by beating the Soviet Union in ice hockey. Up late celebrating the “Miracle on Ice” game, Heiden slept through his alarm the next morning and almost missed the 10,000.
But the Miracle on Ice was not the gold-medal ice hockey game. It was only the semifinal game.
“I remember going in the locker room the next day,” recalled Buzz Schneider, who scored the first goal in the 4-3 win over Russia. “There was sticks on the table for us guys to sign and telegrams on the wall. [Coach] Herb [Brooks] comes in, and he knocks all the sticks off the table. ‘What's wrong with you guys,’ he said. ‘You guys haven’t won a damn thing yet, we're going out to have a fun practice.’”
Two days later, on the final day of the Olympic Winter Games Lake Placid 1980, the U.S. ice hockey team finally won that Olympic gold medal, beating Finland 4-2.
Those are just a few of the stories from the 1980 Winter Games. But Lake Placid, a village in New York’s Adirondack Mountains, has a legacy that extends far beyond memories. The region has sent at least one athlete to every Winter Games since the first modern Winter Games in 1924 (over 100 athletes total). And several have come home with Olympic medals, including alpine skier Andrew Weibrecht (bronze and silver, 2010 and 2014), Nordic combined athlete Billy Demong (silver and gold, 2010), and most recently, luge athlete Chris Mazdzer (silver, 2018).
As part of Lake Placid’s 40th anniversary celebration, six athletes, including Schneider, were on a panel to discuss their Olympic experiences and how the town helped shape them.
Gordy Sheer was 10 when the Winter Games came to Lake Placid in 1980, and he was captivated by the sliding sports—bobsled and luge. The torch relay had come through his hometown of Croton, New York, a few hours south, and a young Sheer lit a candle off the Olympic flame (he still has that candle).
“I told my mother at a very early age that I was going to go to the Olympics,” he said.
Two years later, when he was 12, Sheer was in Lake Placid with his family on vacation when the luge team’s van drove by. On the side of the van was written USA Luge’s phone number: 800-USA-Luge. Sheer called the number and two weeks later he was back in Lake Placid at a grassroots camp.
Sheer and teammate Chris Thorpe would go on to win USA Luge’s first ever Olympic medal at the Olympic Winter Games Nagano 1998 – a silver medal, just ahead of teammates Brian Martin and Mark Grimmette who won bronze at those Games. Sheer and Thorpe also won two world championship silver medals.
“What we achieved wouldn't have been possible without having the [1980 Olympic] facility, the access to the training center, the support from the town, all those things that you don't get anywhere else in the world,” added Sheer, who now works for USA Luge and helps bring the next generation of young sliders to Lake Placid.
The same year that Sheer and Thorpe won Olympic silver, Erin Hamlin, from nearby Remsen, New York, discovered luge. She too was 12 and learned of the sport through a USA Luge Slider Search. She was invited to train in Lake Placid and has memories of a session inside the 1980 Olympic rink—site of the famed ‘Miracle’ ice hockey game.
“Every once in a while you're sitting on the bench of the rink, and you look around,” she remembered. “It’s a special place for sure and to have those vibes around you all the time when you're training, it's hard to not think about like, holy cow, I'm on a path where someday maybe I could do something like that.”
In 2009, on the Lake Placid track, Hamlin had her own miracle on ice. She won the women’s singles luge world title, breaking a streak of 99 wins by German women. Five years later, she won the 2014 Olympic bronze medal – the nation’s first Olympic medal in singles luge and the first ever for women. She won another world title in 2017, then retired in 2018 after the PyeongChang Games, where she was Team USA’s flag bearer at the Opening Ceremony. She now lives back in Remsen, where she works for Ernst & Young, and her husband coaches basketball.
Biathlete Tim Burke, who grew up in nearby Paul Smiths, New York, felt the magic of Lake Placid throughout his childhood and his 19-year athletic career. Burke competed at four Olympic Games and won silver at the 2013 world championships.
“When you walk anywhere in this town, you see the speedskating oval, you see the ski jumps; the Olympics are such a big part of this community,” he said. “You grow up knowing that that's something that's achievable. The Olympics and being an Olympic athlete, being a champion, winning a medal is not something that's so far off.”
Burke was lucky enough to grow up with two other locals who would become Olympians as well as world champions: teammate Lowell Bailey and Demong.
“To be able to push each other every day in training I think is something that really helped each one of us in our own careers,” added Burke, who retired after the 2018 Games and is now U.S. Biathlon’s director of athlete development. He lives in Lake Placid with his wife Andrea Henkel, a four-time Olympic medalist from Germany.
Also a four-time Olympian, Bailey won the biathlon world championship title in the 20-kilometer individual race in 2017. From nearby Saranac Lake, Demong won a Nordic combined world title in 2009 and an Olympic gold medal the following year.
Two local Youth Olympians also sat on the panel: bobsledder Maddy Cohen and biathlete Van Ledger, who both competed at the Winter Youth Olympic Games Lausanne 2020 last month. Cohen grew up in New York City but learned of bobsled through her biology teacher, Matthew Roy (1988 Olympian), at Lake Placid’s Northwood School, where she is a senior. Ledger is a Lake Placid native and is also a high school senior.
“It's awesome because you get to see these top-notch athletes doing essentially what you want to end up doing,” said Ledger, when asked what it was like growing up in Lake Placid and how men like Burke, Bailey and Demong inspired him. “It's amazing to just go and see them in the grocery store. You're looking at a world champion or world silver medalist. Just having them around is really inspirational.”
From the back of the room, world medalist and 2018 Olympic luger Emily Sweeney asked Buzz Schneider a question. She was inspired by the 2004 movie “Miracle,” which told the story of the 1980 U.S. Olympic ice hockey team. And she thanked Schneider for sharing the story “because that's the kind of motivation I need, not for the big moments, but for the all the hard work that you all went through to get there,” she said.
Sweeney wanted to know if the movie was accurate, or did Schneider—whose son played him in the movie—want to set the record straight?
Schneider joked that his son made more money making the movie than he (Schneider) did playing hockey. Then he acknowledged that the producers took a few liberties—mostly with the aggression between the East and West. And with Herb Brooks’ speech, which was too long in the movie.
All that Brooks said to the players before the semifinal game against the Soviets was: “You were born to be hockey players. The moment is yours.”
An award-winning freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered five Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.