Lake Placid Encounter

Today's story is about an interesting encounter in Lake Placid during the opening of the winter skiing season on the day after Thanksgiving. For the uninitiated, there is more to Lake Placid than the 1999 horror film that shares its name. It is, in fact, a quaint town in upstate New York cradled among the Adirondack Mountains, that hosted the Winter Olympic Games in 1932 and 1980.

It was at this Olympic Village that I came across David Heim, a member of the organising committee for the 1980 Games, and the de facto curator of the Winter Olympic Museum. He had fascinating tales to tell about the most important public event experienced by the 2,000 odd inhabitants of this sleepy little hamlet at the height of the Cold War. While most Americans associate the 1980 Winter Olympics with the "Miracle on Ice" (the US team winning the gold medal in ice hockey), there are many other moments of human-interest that reflect the true Olympic spirit and make the Games more memorable.

First and foremost was that Lake Placid was caught unprepared by the influx of sportsmen, journalists and fans, and makeshift arrangements were made by the town to host the participants. That was how the brother-sister pair of Andreas and Hanni Wenzel from the tiny European country of Liechtenstein ended up staying in Heim's house. Between the two of them, the Wenzels won 4 medals for their country, at an average of one per 6,250 people! It had been estimated by the Olympic Committee that if the United States had won the same number of medals per-capita, it would have won 36,000 medals (instead of the paltry twelve)!

Another heart-warming incident happened after the Men's Giant Slamon skiing event in which the famous Ingemar Stenmark from Sweden edged past Andreas Wenzel by less than a second to win his second straight gold medal. Despite the traditional animosity between the two countries, Stenmark insisted that the gold medal be shared with Wenzel, and two days later, they welded halves of their gold and silver medals together. Heim claimed that this news was largely ignored by the media (barring a small mention in Sports Illustrated), and try as I might, I could not find any official mention of it.

Heim himself has lived a colourful life. A one-time U.S. spy in the erstwhile German Democratic Republic (East Germany), he has hobnobbed with all kinds of people. In one celebrated incident, he borrowed a jacket from an acquaintance at a bar without realising that he was Prince Albert of Monaco (the jacket now finds a place of pride in the museum!). But his most life-defining event happened about seven years ago when the private plane that he was travelling in crashed during landing at Lake Placid, and he entered into a 39-day coma. When doctors were all but ready to give up on him, his wife brought in their twins to the hospital (who were conceived after years of expensive fertility treatment), and placed them skin-to-skin on each side of his body. This to me is the real miracle on ice-- Heim woke up the next day!

I mentioned in passing that David should put down all his life experiences in a book, and lo and behold, he is actually working on a memoir titled "The Glass is Half Full", which is expected to be promoted by Oprah's Book Club. Besides being a teller of entertaining sports vignettes, the optimism and enjoyment that David Heim exudes as a result of being offered a second chance at life, is infectious and bound to be an inspiration for all.

The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.
Baron Pierre de Coubertin, Founder of the Modern Olympics


bachi said...

After coming back from the trip, I searched (trying to avoid the term "googled") a lot for authenticity of this person's claims but the effort was of no avail. Your blog entry once again kindled my curiosity and here is the outcome. Not sure if you already found these

Couldn't find anything about the book though.

Anonymous said...

I can corroborate this post. Similar meeting with Mr. Heim and he sent me a draft of the "Glass Is Half Full". One other story was regarding Eric Heiden, who partied with the hockey team the night before his 10k event. Heiden was stuck in traffic leading into the Village. Needing to check in to his last event 1 hour prior, and running late, he exited the vehicle, grabbed his skates and sprinted half a mile to check in a few minutes before the deadline. Heiden then proceeded to win his 4th gold medal in his weakest event.
I had been chastized about Heim and his authenticity but was able to corroborate his affiliation with the Jamacian bobsled team, his work with the virutual reality ride (which is in the hallway of the olympic skating center) and he did provide me a word document version of "The Glass is Half Full".
Either way, he was an interesting person, authenticated or not.

Anonymous said...

Be careful with him. Yes, he was involved in the US bobsled team, but resigned after controversy. Used olympic credit card to pay for his wedding, and olympic funds to build his house. Audit showed funny business, he resigned shortly thereafter.