Saranac Lake loves a parade. It also loves its local Olympians.
Put the two together, and you get one heck of a party.
That's what happened Friday when the communities of Saranac Lake, Lake Placid and the surrounding area came together to honor the local athletes who competed at the Vancouver Winter Olympic Games with a parade and a ceremony turned pep rally at the Harrietstown Town Hall.
Olympic gold and silver medalist Bill Demong, of Vermontville, cheers as he lights an Olympic-style cauldron in front of the Harrietstown Town Hall after Friday’s homecoming parade.
(Enterprise photo — Mike Lynch)
Organized by the Women's Civic Chamber, the Saranac Lake Area Chamber of Commerce and the state Olympic Regional Development Authority, the event featured eight local Olympians, led by nordic combined gold and silver medalist Bill Demong of Vermontville, who had just returned home earlier in the day.
"I feel like my life came full circle today," Demong told a packed house at the Town Hall. "As I came into town, I remembered my first ski race at Mount Van Hoevenberg, learning how to ski at Dewey Mountain, and my first jumps in Lake Placid. It's so inspiring to me to think of all the people in this room who have contributed to the effort I've put in along the way."
Earlier, Demong joined the other local Olympians, and one Olympic alternate, riding on a float from last month's Winter Carnival parade that had been refitted with Olympic rings, American flags and congratulatory banners.
Biathletes Tim Burke of Paul Smiths and Lowell Bailey and Haley Johnson of Lake Placid took part in the welcome-home celebration along with ski jumper Peter Frenette of Saranac Lake, lugers Chris Mazdzer of Saranac Lake and Mark Grimmette of Lake Placid, and bobsledder John Napier of Lake Placid. Emily Sweeney, 16, who lives in Connecticut but whose father is from Saranac Lake, also attended Friday's events. She was an alternate to the U.S. women's luge team. Her older sister Megan Sweeney, a luger who competed in the Olympics, couldn't get to the festivities as she was vacationing in Hawaii.
In interviews before the parade, the athletes said they were glad to be home.
"It's great to be back on my home turf," Bailey said. "This is a great way to cap off the last three weeks."
"This is a great way for me to be able to say thanks to the community for supporting me in my Olympic dreams," said Grimmette, a five-time Olympian who carried the U.S. flag in the Opening Ceremonies Feb. 12.
Frenette and Mazdzer, two of the youngest members of the local Olympic delegation, said they were still trying to get used to all the attention.
"It's been different," said Frenette, who turned 18 on Feb. 26 and returned to the Saranac Lake High School for a surprise "Peter Frenette Day" Wednesday. "It's a little weird. I never thought I would be in a parade or be on a big poster in front of the town hall."
"We wouldn't be here without all the support," added Madzder, who's 21. "If we didn't have people believing in us and backing us, it wouldn't be the same."
Local Boy Scouts and the SLHS Marching Band led the way as the parade traveled up Broadway to Main Street. Students from St. Bernard's School and the Lake Placid and Saranac Lake central school districts carried banners and signs congratulating the local Olympians. The New York Ski Educational Foundation, the Dewey Mountain Youth Ski League, Friends of Mount Pisgah and athletes in ORDA's Junior Bobsled Program also marched in the parade, along with a host of local and state elected officials and dignitaries.
Hundreds of local residents lined both sides of the street shouting congratulations, waving flags, ringing cowbells and holding up homemade signs honoring the athletes.
"We wanted to be here to support our local Olympians," said Liz Goff of Bloomingdale, who brought her two young children to the parade. "I think what they've done is great, and to have them all come from such a small town is amazing."
Steve Doxzon, manager of Dewey Mountain Cross-Country Ski Center, was one of many people snapping pictures from the sidewalk.
"Some of these guys got their start at Dewey Mountain," he said. "It's a good source of pride for us as managers, the kids that ski up there now and the area in general."
As the parade reached the Town Hall, the Olympians filed off the float and Demong lit a replica of the Olympic torch.
In the ceremony that followed, the athletes were congratulated in speeches and proclamations by state Sen. Betty Little, Assemblywomen Teresa Sayward and Janet Duprey, Saranac Lake Deputy Mayor Susan Waters, Lake Placid Mayor Craig Randall, town of Franklin Supervisor Art Willman, North Elba Deputy Supervisor Bob Miller and ORDA President and CEO Ted Blazer.
Some of the biggest cheers, before Demong stepped to the podium, were for Haley Johnson, whom Miller recognized for e-mailing and blogging with local school children while she was competing in Vancouver. Johnson also took groups of Lake Placid Elementary School students cross-country skiing this week.
"As a dad with two daughters, I think you so much for the example you're setting for our children," Miller said.
Napier, a sergeant in the Vermont National Guard, was given a standing ovation after Miller mentioned that Napier had requested to be deployed with the rest of his unit to Afghanistan.
The biggest ovation, however, came when Demong spoke to the audience on behalf of the athletes. He said their Olympic dreams could not have been realized without the support of coaches, teachers, parents and fellow athletes.
"I feel so fortunate to have been the guy that got the medal, but you have all contributed to my success along the way," Demong said.
Demong, the first U.S. nordic athlete to win an Olympic gold medal, spoke directly to the several dozen kids sitting in front of the stage.
"If there's one thing I truly hope comes out of this medal, I hope more kids and people get out and try these sports that we love to do here in the North Country," he said. "I hope these medals go into the collective consciousness of these children and someday this will be thought of as the beginning of nordic domination for the United States."
Helen Demong, Bill's mother, said the support local people have shown the Olympic athletes has been "heartwarming."
"To see so many people come out here and celebrate our athletes, and promote nordic skiing, ski jumping, biathlon, bobsled and luge has been incredible," she said. "(Bill) is incredibly moved, as is our family, by this reception."
She said her son's winning a gold medal was just one of a "series of highlights" from the Olympics that also included Bill's marriage proposal to his girlfriend and his carrying the U.S. flag at the Closing Ceremonies.
Mary Jean Burke, Tim Burke's mom, said she never expected such an reception from the community.
"Even though I know what a great community this is, to see this kind of outpouring today of this many people is overwhelming," she said. "It shows what a great close-knit community this is."
After the ceremony, the athletes posed for pictures and signed countless autographs.
Liz Murray, vice president of the Women's Civic Chamber, called the event a huge success. Having local school children involved in the festivities was important, she said.
"We wanted every kid in school to be here and get the chance to listen to these athletes and get inspired," Murray said. "They could be the next ones on this stage."
Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or firstname.lastname@example.org.