Scott Hamilton gets goosebumps at the mention of Lake Placid.
He was a 21-year-old Olympic newcomer and sitting in a darkened theater when he felt a tap on his shoulder.
“Halfway through the movie I get pulled out by our team captains,” the figure skating great recalled. “They tried to make me think that I was being thrown out of the Olympics. Then they broke the news. I remember I was shaking so badly that when we went back to the Olympic Village cafeteria I was pouring coffee and spilling it all over my hands.”
Hamilton had just been chosen to carry the American flag at the opening ceremony for the 1980 Winter Games in the Adirondack village in northern New York and was trying to make sense of it all.
“They had to nominate somebody,” he said with a laugh. “I remember when they brought it up and thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be something carrying the flag in the opening ceremony?’ You sort of immediately delete it. There were so many other people.”
It didn’t even seem a remote possibility.
“Then when it happens, ‘What in the world?’” he said.
Hamilton finished fifth in men’s singles, just behind teammates Charles Tickner (bronze) and David Sante. Four years later, he captured a gold medal at the Sarajevo Games after winning the first three of his four consecutive world titles.
“It was a breakthrough performance,” Hamilton said. “It was pretty cool, the crowds and how they responded and just being able to get through the Olympics in such a way that I was really optimistic about my future. Being in Lake Placid was exciting. That whole Olympics is beyond description in the excitement level, the Olympics in your own backyard.”
Forty years later, Hamilton will be among an array of athletes returning to celebrate the Olympics of the “Miracle on Ice” — when the U.S. hockey team upset the mighty Soviet Union — as well as Eric Heiden’s five speedskating gold medals, all in record time and outside in the elements.
The celebration begins Friday evening with a torch run featuring nine runners who carried the flame in 1980 — Steve Simon, Suzy Mink, John Beaumont, Carol Arnold, Sandee Norris, Debbie Richardson, Beverly Johnson, Sean McDevitt, and Alison Carlson. The lighting of the cauldron at the North Elba Show Grounds will touch off the festivities.
It’s an important moment for the village, which will host the 2023 Winter World University Games, and a reminder of its place as one of only three resort towns to host two Winter Olympiads (St. Moritz, Switzerland, and Innsbruck, Austria are the others). The 1932 Winter Olympics put the village on the winter sports map and the 1980 Games helped transform it into a year-round destination.
“It’s a big deal,” said 81-year-old Jim Shea, the son of two-time Olympic gold medalist Jack Shea, a hometown hero. “We’ve been around a long time. We’re so lucky to be in a community that has so many people that care.”
Jack Shea won two speedskating golds in 1932 and four decades later helped land the 1980 Games. He died at 91 after a car crash on the eve of the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games. His grandson Jimmy had qualified in skeleton to make the Sheas the first family with three generations of Olympians.
“My dad, I know he would be proud,” said Jim Shea, who competed in Nordic combined at Innsbruck in 1964 and watched his son win gold in Salt Lake City. “He was so proud of his involvement in the Olympics for all those years. God, he loved it. He always had this community pride and he wasn’t embarrassed to tell anybody about it.”
Most members of the U.S. hockey team will celebrate in Las Vegas on Feb. 22 with the NHL’s Golden Knights on the exact anniversary of the electrifying triumph over the Soviets. But Buzz Schneider will make an appearance next week in Lake Placid at an athletes forum before joining his teammates.
Also among more than 20 former Olympians participating in events available to the public are 1994 gold medalist speedskater Dan Jansen and 11 members of the 1980 U.S. figure skating team, dubbed the “Dream Team,” including Linda Fratianne, Tai Babilonia, Michael Botticelli, Tickner, Santee, and Hamilton, a cancer survivor who will host a cancer fundraiser at the speedskating oval.
The Lake Placid Games were staged at a time of international upheaval. The Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan, militants in Iran had seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran, and the United States boycotted the Summer Olympics in Moscow later in the year because of the situation in Afghanistan.
“Given the legacy of the 1980 Winter Games, we must never underestimate their significance in Lake Placid,” said Ed Weibrecht, president of the local chamber of commerce in 1980 and longtime owner of the Mirror Lake Inn. “Many Olympic hosts have faded into obscurity when their games ended, but not here. We rejoice in them each day, and rightfully so. They took place at an important time in the history of the United States.
“We should never forget how this community and the games uplifted an entire country when it was really needed.”