LAKE PLACID – With the World Cup season now underway for winter sports, thousands of athletes are looking to put forth their best efforts with the hopes of making their nations’ Olympic teams so they can compete in Sochi, Russia this February.
Among those athletes are men and women who grew up in the Tri-Lakes region. Some experienced Olympians such as Tim Burke of Paul Smiths, Lowell Bailey of Lake Placid, Chris Mazdzer of Saranac Lake and Billy Demong of Vermontville are assured of spots due to their strong seasons in recent years. Others such as Tommy Biesemeyer of Keene and Annelies Cook of Saranac Lake are trying to get to the games for the first time.
Below is a sport-by-sport look at which local athletes are headed to Sochi and which ones are still battling for spots on the Olympic teams.
The Adirondacks could potentially send three athletes to compete in biathlon. Bailey and Burke have already received early nominations for the Olympic team while Cook has a strong shot at it.
Burke and Bailey received their early nominations based on their 2012-13 World Cup seasons. Both would compete in their third Olympics.
Last season, Burke finished with six International Biathlon Union World Cup top-five finishes and was ranked No. 10 overall.
He also made U.S. biathlon history in February by claiming silver in the 20-kilometer individual race at the IBU World Championships in Nove Mesto, Czech Republic. He became only the second American to medal in the world championships, following in the footsteps of Josh Thompson, who won silver in a 20k race held in Lake Placid in 1987.
“The two-time Olympian (2006, 2010) is a likely contender for Team USA’s first Olympic medal in biathlon,” according to a recent U.S. Biathlon press release.
“Obviously the Olympics are my biggest priority this season, but that does not actually change how I will approach the World Cup races,” Burke told the Enterprise in an email from Sweden where the biathlon World Cup season started Sunday. “The difference is that I will be a little more cautious before the Olympics if I feel like I am getting too tired racing on the World Cup. If this happens, I will definitely be more likely to skip some World Cup races in order to prepare best for the Olympics.”
Right now, though, Burke said he feels like he is in great shape.
“I had a great year of training and I set many personal records in training over the last eight months,” Burke wrote. “I feel like I am better prepared for this season than any in the past, but you never actually know until you start racing!”
Bailey has also been skiing and shooting well in recent years. With five top-10 IBU World Cup finishes last season, Bailey was ranked 28th in 2012-13 overall standings.
“After competing in Sochi at the pre-Olympic world cups in March, I feel prepared and excited for the coming Games,” Bailey said in a recent press release. “Without the added stress of qualifying, I now can focus solely on the goal of an Olympic medal.”
Cook will have to wait until at least mid-December to find out if she is headed to Sochi. At least one woman and one man will be nominated following the December World Cups, which conclude Dec. 17. The remaining selections for the 2014 U.S. Olympic Biathlon Team will be made in January.
With that in mind, Cook is trying to keep focusing on each race.
“The approach to the World Cup season on an Olympic year hasn’t changed too much – the goals for all of us are still the same – to try and put together good performances,” Cook told the Enterprise in an email. “We have had a super professional approach all year long and the staff has been doing everything in their power to help us. We want to have good results throughout the entire season and prepare for each World Cup the same way that we would prepare for the Olympic competitions so we can try to keep everything as normal as possible.”
Demong made the biggest splash at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver with two medals. He became the first-ever American to win a gold medal in nordic combined and also took home a silver in the relay.
He also got engaged at the Vancouver Games and was a U.S. flag bearer at the closing ceremonies. Sochi will be Demong’s fifth and likely his final Olympics, he has announced.
In the two years after the Olympics, Demong was pretty quiet in the standings, but he seemed to get back on track last season.
He anchored the U.S. team when it took bronze in the team event at the FIS Nordic World Ski Championships in Val di Fiemme, Italy last winter. It was the first-ever full-team medal for the U.S. nordic combined team at any world championships. Earlier in the season, he and his four-man squad finished third at the Schonach, Germany World Cup stop.
Heading into this winter season, Demong said he is healthy and on track performance-wise for this Olympic season.
“I certainly want to set the tone of the season and for my confidence in the beginning of the season, however, I am not overly concerned about the first few races,” he wrote the Enterprise. “My biggest intention is to get some racing for fitness and to try and get on the podium before Christmas.”
The Adirondacks has two alpine skiers competing in World Cup races with the goal of making the Olympics: Andrew Weibrecht of Lake Placid and Biesemeyer of Keene.
Weibrecht was the only local athlete other than Demong to bring home a medal from the last Olympics, taking bronze in the super-G race.
That medal doesn’t assure him of a spot on the Olympic team this season, but he has a good shot of making the squad again.
The past few years Weibrecht has battled illness and injuries, which has held him back from performing as well as he’s capable of. That may be his biggest obstacle to making the team.
“The last couple of years were definitely tough, but I think I’m on the upswing. Knock on wood as far as all of that stuff goes,” Weibrecht said. “I really tried hard to stay healthy.”
While Weibrecht is looking to go to his second Winter Games, Biesemeyer is hoping to get over the hump to make his first. This is his third season on the World Cup tour.
“I’m ready to go. I’m fit. I’m strong,” Biesemeyer said. “Now I’ll just hopefully race well and get some luck and hopefully get some good results at the start of the year.”
Biesemeyer is coming off a year when he finished 28th overall in the super-G standings. His goal was to be in the top 30. The highlight of the year for him was taking 13th place in the super-G World Championships in Schladming, Austria in February.
This season, Biesemeyer is focused on the World Cup events first.
“It’s nerve-wracking for sure because you know you have a chance of (making the Olympics), but it’s also exciting and I just look forward to being able to represent the USA, if I can,” Biesemeyer said. “If I perform well, then I think I’ll have a legitimate shot to be a member of that team. But right now our ski team is really strong and we have a lot of depth.
“I want to sort of chip away and keep improving my rankings and get better results and get more comfortable racing at a World Cup level, and then if I can put the Olympics in the equation, then it’s a bonus.”
Luge, skeleton and bobsled
Saranac Lake luger Chris Mazdzer became the first American to secure a 2014 Olympic team nomination by finishing fourth in a World Cup race at the two-time Winter Olympic site just outside Innsbruck, Austria on Saturday, Nov. 23.
“If you are not on your game in the beginning of the season then there is the possibility of not making it to the Olympics,” Mazdzer told the Enterprise from Austria in an email two days before the race. “Knowing this fact it is easy to put too much pressure on yourself and each World Cup in the beginning of the season. better be on your game!!!”
Apparently Mazdzer was on his game. His fourth-place finish was his best ever.
Mazdzer actually pre-qualified for the Sochi Olympic Winter Games last season with his sixth-place result at the 2013 World Championships. Nursing a sore shoulder, he verified that nomination by virtue of his top-five result.
Mazdzer could be joined by some other sliders with strong ties to this region. Teammates Tucker West and Aidan Kelly both graduated from National Sports Academy in Lake Placid, as did Summer Britcher on the women’s team. All three hope to make the Olympic team.
In addition, Erin Hamlin will likely attend her third Olympics. She’s from Remsen, which is between Old Forge and Utica. Emily Sweeney, who is from Suffield, Conn. but has family ties to Saranac Lake, is also competing for a spot.
In reality, most of the lugers have strong ties to Lake Placid because the team headquarters is based here, and all the lugers spend a lot of time here training. The sliding track at Mount Van Hoevenberg is just one of two in the country. The other is in Park City, Utah.
While neither the bobsled or skeleton team has any athletes who grew up in this area vying for the Olympic team, they have also spent a great deal of time here, training and competing in World Cup races. The U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation is based in Lake Placid.
Leading the skeleton teams are Noelle Pikus-Pace and Katie Uhlaender for the women and John Daly, Matt Antoine nad Kyle Tress for the men.
Gold medalist bobsled Steven Holcomb will once again pilot USA 1 in this World Cup season; Nick Cunningham and Cory Butner will pilot the other two sleds.
The women will be led by pilots Elana Meyers, Jamie Greuebl and Jazmine Fenlator, respectively.
The U.S. men’s and women’s ski jumping teams are also loaded with athletes who have spent a lot of time in Lake Placid because of the Olympic Jumping Complex.
That includes Lindsey Van of Utah, who lived in Lake Placid for several years, and Nick Alexander of New Hampshire, who attended NSA. Anders Johnson also lived in Lake Placid and was born in Plattsburgh.
However, the U.S. teams also include two Adirondack natives, Peter Frenette of Saranac Lake and Nina Lussi of Lake Placid. Both are still competing to make the Olympic squads. Frenette already has one Olympics under his belt, but he faces tough competition for limited spots on the men’s team this time.
“Our whole team is jumping at a very high level and there will only be 3 or 4 spots for the Olympics,” Frenette said via email from Park City, Utah. “I need to jump well and consistently right off the back if I am going to qualify for my second Olympics. And I am prepared to do so.”
Lussi is more of a long shot to make Sochi. She is competing on the U.S. World Cup tour this winter but will have to move ahead of a few teammates before qualifying for Sochi, which will also be the first time women’s ski jumping will be in the Olympics.
“Obviously this is a monumental Olympics for my sport,” the 19-year-old Lussi told the Enterprise via email. “This is the first time women are allowed to compete and I know some of my teammates have been waiting for this day longer than they can even remember. This being said, I also feel the need to add that just because I may be a bit younger and may have a future in the sport ahead of me, does not mean that I am going to simply step aside and let them have it. I know that in the end, we will be sending the strongest team to represent Team USA and I only hope that my name will be on the roster.”
Some other names to look for this World Cup and Olympic season with ties to this region are aerialist Ashley Caldwell, mogul skier Hannah Kearney of Vermont and speedskater Shani Davis of Illinois.
Caldwell lived in Lake Placid for five years before moving to Park City, Utah last year. The 20-year-old Olympian was a rising star in aerials until she injured her knee two years ago, forcing her out of action until this World Cup season. She returns to action in December, hoping for a chance at Sochi.
Kearney is an Olympic gold-medalist who has spent a great deal of time living at the Olympic Training Complex in Lake Placid. Davis, another Olympic champion, attended school in Lake Placid as a child.