Little known fact about the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y.: The best vantage points for the speed-skating oval - the last of its kind that was completely open to the elements - were from the boys' bathrooms at Lake Placid High School. There was one on each floor of the handsome brick building. Visitors could step past the stalls, open a window and behold history: Eric Heiden winning an unprecedented five gold medals, sweeping every event.
Longtime Lake Placid resident Sandy Caligiore remembers it vividly. The local kids had been sent home for five weeks while their school was converted into a high-tech press center. Caligiore, then a reporter for a local radio station, found himself at the center of the sporting universe, with access to all the events. Chief among them Team USA's upset of the Red Army hockey team and its ensuing gold-medal victory over Finland. The 1980 games had more than their share of highlights: Heiden, the Miracle on Ice, Phil Mahre rallying from a shattered ankle - sustained a year earlier on the same slopes of Whiteface Mountain - to take silver in the GS. But there were headaches as well. A drivers strike crippled transportation, stranding would-be spectators and tarnishing the 1980 Olympics as a logistical nightmare.
Today's visitors will have no trouble negotiating Lake Placid's charming downtown. In the evenings, holiday lights and gleaming store windows set Main Street aglow. Bells chime as you step inside shop doors; floorboards creak as you browse Adirondack crafts-bentwood and birchbark, highbrow and high camp. The village lines the shore of Mirror Lake, and on moonlit nights nordic skiers crisscross its snow-covered ice, bounding dogs in tow.
Ever since the 1932 Games, also held here, Olympic heritage and a love of winter has permeated Lake Placid. And this February, at the 25th anniversary of the '80 games, visitors will have the chance to relive the glory as Lake Placid and Whiteface celebrate with events and activities: Take a spin on Heiden's oval, catch nordic events at the Mt. Van Hoevenberg venues or climb into a vintage 1980 sled for a run down the last half-mile of the old bobsled run. Only when you're sideways to the horizon, thundering through a banked turn at 60 mph, do you truly appreciate what it means to be a bobsledder.
But for skiers, Whiteface Mountain, venue for the 1980 alpine competitions, is the main event. State-owned and operated, Whiteface is a scenic 15-minute drive from town along the Ausable River. Because it lies at the heart of Adirondack State Park-some six million acres designated "forever wild" by the people of New York - only minimal development has been, or will ever be, allowed. In short, there are no condos, villages or elaborate homes - and no pretense.
Just terrain, and plenty of it. In the East, Whiteface is second to none in terms of vertical drop: 3,166 feet, skiable in a single run, if you care to do it. Whiteface lacks the breadth of other Eastern giants - there are a modest 225 acres of lift-served terrain - but in deep-snow years, the mountain offers some of the East's most spectacular off-piste lines, The Slides. As the name implies, these are natural avalanche paths where the slopes have been laid bare of trees. A short hike from the top of the Summit Quad yields huge rewards for adventurous experts: long, steep, fall-line drops untouched by any grooming machine.
Yet Whiteface is not exclusively the domain of experts. Kids Kampus, segregated from the bustle of the main mountain, is its own little world, where kids bundled up to the point of immobility slide along behind their instructors in follow-the-leader S-turns or chatter over dino nuggets and cocoa in their own base lodge. There are also intermediate routes from the upper-mountain lifts, so all can enjoy the stunning vistas.
This year, atop the Summit Quad, skiers will see signs marking the location of the Olympic downhill sstart-house, where Leonhard Stock, a last-minute addition to the Austrian team, pushed off on his way to gold. Similar signs will identify all the Olympic alpine venues, so visitors can imagine what it might have been like to be double-gold-medalist Ingemar Stenmark as they ski in the tracks of the greats.
Caligiore counts those two Olympic weeks as a lifetime highlight. But he also recalls a downside he hadn't counted on: the shock of it being over. "It was a big letdown. There's this pulse, with downtown teeming with people, trading pins, having a great time, and then boom, it's over and gone." But though the games are gone, memories persist, and Lake Placid remains a repository of some of the USA's most treasured Olympic moments, just waiting to be relived. From a better vantage point, one hopes, than the boy's bathroom.