LAKE PLACID - A flock of rookie athletes scribbled notes while listening intently to Eric Bernotas as he examined and explained the entrance and exits of turns on the Mount Van Hoevenberg course.
Bernotas did not suit up to compete for what could have been his fifth skeleton national title last week, but opted instead to coach the development athletes in hopes of passing on knowledge he gained over the last decade of his career.
The Avondale, Pa. native has been a leader in the U.S. skeleton technology program from its inception and volunteered to stay in Lake Placid to test equipment instead of touring with the World Cup team for the second half of the season. After a few weeks reflecting on his career while feeding information to the squad overseas, Bernotas felt moved to begin a new chapter in his life.
Eric Bernotas brakes in the finish area during the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics.
(AP Photo — Michael Sohn)
"It is time for me to move on," Bernotas wrote in an e-mail. "Thank you to everyone, it really was a pleasure. I leave a sport knowing that I was impacted tremendously and I hope that I made a positive impact on others involved."
Bernotas was the key to a tangled map toward elite competition for many developing athletes. Rookie and veteran sliders alike admire Bernotas for his tenacity and success, including recently named national champion Matt Antoine.
"Eric is someone I have always looked up to in this sport and will continue to even after his retirement," Antoine said. "His work ethic and determination are unmatched to any other athlete. It always pushed me to be better. It's no surprise that he had as much success as he did."
In 2001, Bernotas took his first skeleton run down the Lake Placid track after he and then girlfriend made a wrong turn and stumbled upon the Olympic Sports Complex. Ten years later Bernotas' sliding resume boasts 12 World Cup medals, the 2007 World Championship silver medal, four national championship titles and two Olympic appearances.
"This journey has been filled with all sorts of wonderful varieties, amazing places, tough challenges, joyful triumphs, and more importantly incredible people," Bernotas said. "I'm thankful for all that skeleton has given to me and my family, and my memories will always be strong."
Bernotas not only inspired developing athletes because of his accolades in the sport, but also through his determined spirit. "Obstacles becoming opportunities" is Bernotas' motto.
He didn't rise to the top without challenges. Bernotas faced depression, social anxiety and a tic disorder associated with Tourette Syndrome throughout this life. Rather than view these challenges as obstacles, Bernotas turned them into opportunities to live with purpose and passion.
"He's been such a huge part of this U.S. program for the past number of years; not only for his success on the track, but his infectious personality," Antoine said. "I don't think anyone here loves what they do as much as Eric, and for that he will continue to find success in whatever he does next."
Tuffy Latour returned to the U.S. program after a stint coaching the Canadians, and immediately recognized Bernotas as a leader that was driving the team forward.
"You can't become a world medalist and not leave an impact on the sport," Latour said. "Eric was that guy our development athletes were trying to catch and looked up to over the years as one of the top athletes in the sport. He left an impression on these guys."
More than 20 athletes entered into U.S. National Skeleton Championships were first-year sliders and the program is expected to continue growing leading up to the 2014 Winter Olympic Games. Thanks to one wrong turn while on vacation in Lake Placid 10 years ago, Bernotas was able to impact an entire community.
"I have learned that dreams can come true, but I have also learned the dreams can be dangerous and risks are involved," Bernotas said. "Amazingly enough, life without risk is no life at all. But there comes a time where the dreams take over and consume an important reality of what may be right in front of us the whole time. It is now time to shine somewhere else."