Guts and Glitter
The dazzling dreams. The grueling training. The star-studded past. Behind the scenes of Lake Placid’s fIgure skating culture
by Lisa Bramen
“There ain’t an Olympian out there,” says Evelyn Kramer, nodding toward the young skaters doing swizzles and twizzles on the ice at Lake Placid’s Olympic Center. The longtime coach, who knows from Olympians—she took Australian Anthony Liu to the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games—isn’t criticizing. She’s just being honest about the odds: Of the thousands of competitive skaters in the United States, only the tiniest fraction ever reach the Olympic heights of a Michelle Kwan (with whom Kramer has also worked) or a Dorothy Hamill.
And yet—12 years before her gold medal at the 1976 Innsbruck Games, before every female in America emulated her sassy hairstyle—Hamill was once in the same position as these aspiring athletes. When she arrived in Lake Placid as a hard-working but unpolished nine-year-old skater, no one could have foreseen her future atop the podium: she did a belly-flop on the ice during her ﬁrst solo performance and came in third to last at her ﬁrst Lake Placid competition. But under the tutelage of the legendary coach Gustave “Gus” Lussi, Hamill progressed quickly. In her memoir, A Skating Life, she calls Lake Placid “one of the most magical places in the world.… It would become my second home, both geographically and in my heart.”
For the better part of the 20th century, Lake Placid was the place for ﬁgure skaters to train—it was one of the few facilities of its caliber open year-round. Now there are comparable rinks all over the country. Though hundreds of athletes still attend the Olympic Regional Development Authority’s ﬁgure-skating camp each year at the Olympic Center, which runs from late June to the end of August, it’s generally agreed that Lake Placid’s ﬁgure-skating heyday is behind it.
“This is the oldest standing Olympic [skating] venue still in use—that’s huge,” says Karen Courtland Kelly, a 1994 Olympian who now coaches in Lake Placid year-round. “People don’t realize how special this place is.” She’s talking about the 1932 Rink, where most of the summer skating camp takes place.
As with other winter sports in Lake Placid, ﬁgure skating’s history here began in earnest with the Sno Birds, sponsored by Melvil Dewey’s Lake Placid Club, in the early 20th century. According to Lake Placid Figure Skating: A History, by Christie Sausa (author of the Lake Placid Skater blog), they held “fancy skating” competitions on the club’s frozen tennis courts and hosted the meeting at which the United States Figure Skating Association was established, in 1921.
The 1932 Lake Placid Winter Olympics, where ﬁgure skating was one of the most popular events, cemented the town’s association with the sport. Norway’s Sonja Henie, who won gold that year, captivated audiences and became ﬁgure skating’s ﬁrst superstar.
After the Games, Gus Lussi, a Swiss ski-jumper who had turned to skating following a serious accident, helped make the arena a premier training center, establishing the summer skating program and staging elaborate ice operettas. “As far as putting Lake Placid on the map and making this the place to come to skate, Gus Lussi was a visionary,” says Dennis Allen, general manager of the Olympic Center.
For more than ﬁve decades, Lussi taught some of the biggest names in the business, including Dick Button, Tab Hunter, Dorothy Hamill and Scott Hamilton. He was known as an exacting coach. “We worked on one thing for hours,” says Evelyn Kramer, another Lussi pupil. “You didn’t move on until you got it.”
Lake Placid got a second chance to host the Winter Olympics in 1980. The ice arena was expanded, with two rinks added (a fourth, a small studio rink named in honor of Lussi, had been built in 1967; it was demolished in 2009 to make room for a new conference center). Though the highlight of the Games was the “Miracle on Ice” hockey game where the underdog Americans beat the favored Russians, ﬁgure skating continued to be popular with spectators. First-time Olympian Scott Hamilton placed ﬁfth; Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner, favorites to win the pairs event, were unable to compete after Gardner was injured during a warm-up.
Since the 1980s “the landscape has changed considerably” for the Olympic Center, says Allen. “You can skate anywhere now.” On top of that, ﬁgure skating itself has declined in popularity. Some people blame, in part, the scoring system put in place after the judging scandal at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, where the gold medal went to the Russian pairs team rather than the better-performing Canadians. In the old way, skaters earned a maximum of six points each in technical elements and presentation; now they are scored under a more elaborate system that some people feel has sapped the sport of its artistry. “The audience could really relate to a 5.9,” says Karen Courtland Kelly. “Now a lot of things look the same, and the disconnect with the audience worries me.”
One of the U.S. ﬁgure skaters hoping to go to Sochi in February is Ross Miner, who trained here in his early years. But it’s been a long time since Lake Placid sent a skater directly to the Olympics.
Along with its reputation as a safe community, Lake Placid’s biggest remaining advantage is that it still attracts big-name coaches who want to return to the site of their glory days. The majority come during the summer skating camp—some for a week or two, others for the whole season.
Sheryl Franks, of the Boston area, won a bronze medal for pairs skating in the 1980 Olympics in the same building where she now brings her students for a week each summer. “It’s so cool that there’s a lot of stuff still here [from the 1980 Games],” she says. “I tour them around and can say, ‘This is where I got to the Olympics and lived my dream.’”
Evelyn Kramer, who lives in the California desert, returns to Lake Placid every summer for the duration of the camp. The daughter of Eastern European immigrants, Kramer was about nine when she began skating. In summers her family would make the eight-hour trip from Manhattan so she could train with Lussi. “Every year I go stand by where my coach taught me,” she says, getting misty-eyed. “These were the happiest days of my life.”
Despite her pessimism about the Olympic chances of today’s Lake Placid skaters, Kramer is not here to dash anyone’s Swarovski-studded dreams. Quite the opposite. Her coaching style is more Jewish Bubbe than Bobby Knight—all encouraging hugs and corny asides, not chair-throwing rants. She has a master’s degree in psychology, and her lessons are peppered with phrases like, “I really appreciate what you did there,” and, “You go, girl!” When a student makes a mistake, Kramer jokingly pretends she didn’t see it because she was on her phone ordering makeup from Sephora. And she always ends the lesson with something she knows the skater can do.
Kramer’s summer coaching schedule ﬁlls up quickly, with students coming from as far away as Singapore for a few hours of her time. She’s been dubbed the “Spin Doctor,” though a lot of what she works on is tweaking a skater’s presentation. “It’s a notice-me sport,” she says. “It’s the only time you can say, ‘Enough about me—what do you think of my hair?’” (It should be noted that Kramer’s cropped ’do is streaked with the same violet as her eyeglass frames.)
She’s adopted Lussi’s technique of using imagery to help a skater visualize the correct posture and position, though her references are a little more colorful. Teaching 11-year-old Talia Shusterman to arch her back and stick out her chest, Kramer asks, “Do you know who Dolly Parton is?”
Kramer’s grandmotherly-yet-saucy personality has earned her a loyal following. Near the end of the summer, a young girl she has been working with comes into the coaches’ lounge to give her a thank-you card. As she reads it, Kramer squeezes her lips together and starts to tear up. “I get verklempt,” she says. “You never know who you affect.”
One July afternoon near the end of a practice session in the 1932 Rink, a small group of high-school-age girls, wearing various shades of fluorescent warm-ups, clusters at the edge of the ice. They are posing for group selﬁes on their phones, gossiping about boys and occasionally breaking off to skate a lap and do a spin or a jump.
Socializing can wait for 16-year-old Victoria “Tori” Los, who has been practicing her routine. When she stops rinkside for a swig from her water bottle, a younger girl compliments her skating. Tori smiles warmly and thanks her, then pushes off to practice more.
Tori has been skating since she was four years old. She lives in Saratoga Springs and practices every day after school at her local rink, but on Sundays during the school year one of her parents drives her 100 miles north to train in Lake Placid with Karen Courtland Kelly. Tori also spends summers in Lake Placid, training six days a week. She stays at Lysek’s Hillcrest Inn, a boardinghouse up the hill from the Olympic Center for ﬁgure skaters and other young athletes.
Tori is polite and poised. A nearly straight-A student, she is combining her junior and senior coursework so she can graduate a year early and concentrate on her sport. She says she is “not really” into dating yet and, though she has a lot of friends, rarely goes out on weekends because she has to wake up early to train.
She’s not the only one making sacriﬁces for her skating. Her parents, Mary and Mike, have to juggle Tori’s schedule with her three younger sisters, all involved in sports of their own—though none as serious or as expensive. Mary says she hasn’t calculated how much she and her husband spend on ﬁgure skating, but according to Evelyn Kramer it can easily run to tens of thousands of dollars a year: High-level coaches charge anywhere from $45 to $140 per hour for lessons, and ice time alone can cost thousands annually. There’s also skates, which need to be sharpened frequently; clothing, including performance dresses, which at the competition level are often custom-sewn; boardinghouses like Lysek’s; travel to competitions; entry fees and more. Tori babysits and waitresses on Saturdays to contribute to the fund, though her mother admits it’s “a drop in the bucket.”
Tori’s typical training day starts with Pilates with Kelly at 8:30, followed by a snack, warm-up and an hour of technical instruction on the ice. After lunch, there’s another session at the rink to run through her program, then an hour of ballet and tap dance, to help her develop style and grace. Finally, after another snack, Tori jogs the hilly terrain behind the Olympic Center before heading to Lysek’s for dinner and relaxation. Unlike Kramer, who only works with any one skater for a few hours at a time, Kelly is involved in every aspect of Tori’s training. She’s been her coach since Tori’s family moved to New York from Indiana in 2010.
Kelly and her husband, former Olympic speed skater Patrick Kelly, moved here in 1996, when the Olympic Regional Development Authority invited her as a spokesperson and consultant for the ﬁgure skating program. Her contract expired in 2002, but the couple stayed on in Lake Placid. Last spring Tori passed the Novice Free Skate test to advance from the Intermediate level. If she continues to progress, someday she’ll go on to Junior and then Senior, the level at which Olympic hopefuls become eligible to compete.
“Right now we’re focusing on competing at this level,” Kelly says. “You want to be a great Novice before you move on.” She warns about catching “the age virus,” the idea that if a skater hasn’t “made it” by the time she’s 15 or 16, she might as well give up. “It takes a lot of talent down and out.… It’s a disaster,” she says. “I made the Olympic team at 23. If all your competition gets the age virus, they’ll drop out and you’ll just keep getting better and better.”
Like any young skater, Tori has the occasional daydream about going to the Olympics, but such faraway goals aren’t what drives her. “I skate because I love it. I’m always reminding myself that,” she says. “There’s nothing else like it.… When you do a jump and you land it, there’s this burst of energy that goes through you. It’s so magical.”
Even if she doesn’t end up an international competitor, Tori says she might like to become a coach or join one of the traveling ice shows, such as Holiday on Ice, as two other students of Kelly recently have.
In early August, Tori achieves a personal best at the Charter Oak Open, in Simsbury, Connecticut, earning four points higher than her previous top score and her ﬁrst medal at the Novice level. She’s landed all her jumps, the hardest she’s done in competition. “We’re really working on peaking for the season at Regionals” in Lake Placid in October, Kelly says.
On a Wednesday evening in August, it’s Fiesta Night at Lysek’s Hillcrest Inn. Streamers hang from the ceilings, and Spanish music is playing. Marilyn Lysek is manning the taco bar, dishing out meat or beans according to the dietary preferences of the two dozen or so kids bunking here this week.
Richard Lysek is in the kitchen; feeding teen and tween athletes is his full-time job. He prepares breakfast and dinner daily, and keeps the kitchen stocked with snacks. Marilyn has taped helpful information on the wall for the skaters: the movies playing at the Palace Theater, on Main Street; the schedule for the village’s free trolley; a magazine clipping about how to get out of a car like a lady.
The house rules dictate a nine o’clock curfew—including turning off electronic devices—and no food in the rooms, but Marilyn says she doesn’t have to enforce them very often. “In the early years we had some problems with girls staying out all night, ﬁnding the parties, but not now. They’re pretty good because they’re so busy.”
And tired. After dinner, a younger girl asks Tori what she’s doing that night. “Nothing, thank God,” Tori replies. “It’s been a long day.”
The Lyseks came to Lake Placid in the summer of 1981 because their daughter Carly was attending the ﬁgure skating camp. They bought the house that had been used by the West Germans during the previous year’s Olympics; it was intended to be the Lyseks’ vacation home, but it was big enough to also house Carly’s skater friends. When the summer ended and no one wanted to go home to Massachusetts, the Lyseks decided to turn boarding athletes into a business. At ﬁrst it was just ﬁgure skaters, though these days they also take skiers and speed skaters. “It’s like a mini–Olympic Village,” Marilyn says.
Lysek’s is the last boardinghouse of its kind in town, and it’s on the market; after 33 years, Marilyn and Richard are ready to retire to Florida. They hope whoever buys the home will continue to house athletes. If they don’t, it will be the end of an era—and another blow to the local ﬁgure skating culture.
The Saturday Night Ice Show has been a Lake Placid summer tradition since the early 1970s. For $5 a head, the public is invited to watch the skaters do their thing. A slot is open to anyone taking part in the camp, so the performances vary widely—from a group number of whiskered little girls wobbling to “What’s New, Pussycat?” to the national competitors invited each week as guest stars.
After every performance, the M.C. implores the audience to “put your hands together”—and they do. They clap when someone lands a jump, and they applaud in support when someone falls, which happens a lot.
Evelyn Kramer’s also in the audience. She’s been working with a 10-year-old boy to keep his mouth closed while performing—when he’s tense he tends to drop it open—and has come up with a solution: have him chew gum before a show. She moves to the edge of her plastic seat as her student skates onto the ice in a football jersey and beige velour pants, waiting to see if her idea has worked.
It has. As the boy ends his performance, mouth closed, Kramer jumps to her feet and lets out a whoop. The skater grins, and his father greets him rinkside with a hug.
Tori is the last skater to go on before the guest stars, something of an honor. She rarely misses an opportunity to perform on Saturday nights. “You get butterflies, but I love it,” she says. “You practice so hard and then you get to show it off.”
She does her short program, to “Romeo and Juliet” by Nino Rota. To the untrained eye, Tori skates beautifully. But she knows, as do her coach and mother watching from the stands, that she did a single instead of a double on one of her jumps. If this had been a competition, she wouldn’t have scored well.
It’s a Sunday morning in early October, the third day of the North Atlantic Regional Figure Skating Championships, and Tori is warming up on the ice at the 1980 Rink before she and the other skaters in her group compete. This is the competition she’s been working toward all summer—her ﬁrst regionals as a Novice.
A few dozen spectators sit in the arena’s 8,000 seats; nearly all of them appear to be friends and family of the competitors. Tori’s mother, Mary, is among them. “If she skates like she’s been skating, she’ll do well,” she says.
Tori has progressed a lot this summer, but her last competition, the Middle Atlantic Figure Skating Championships in New York City in September, didn’t go well—she landed all her jumps, she says, but “it was messy.” She’s determined to do better today.
During practice, though, she falls on her backside. A man watching from near the entrance to the arena jokes, “Now, that’s called a sit spin.” Tori can’t hear him, but it’s the ﬁrst sign things might not go as she had hoped.
Karen Courtland Kelly tries to reassure her, reminding her it’s better to have a lousy warm-up and a good performance than vice-versa. They shake hands, and Tori heads onto the ice to compete.
She skates a half lap before stopping in the center of the rink. Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” begins, and she launches into her program. She stumbles slightly on her ﬁrst jump, a double lutz, but recovers. She goes on to do a flip combination, then an axel, landing both. Then, during a double loop—a jump she’s been successfully landing for years—she falls. She gets up immediately, and ends her program with a near-perfect double flip, but that isn’t enough to make up for the fall. She exits the ice looking glum.
Her mother and coach meet her outside the locker room, where she is in tears. Mary puts her arm around her daughter and starts tearing up herself. Kelly acknowledges Tori didn’t skate her best, but focuses on the positive. She’s already talking about how they’ll proceed, maybe end-loading the program with her harder jumps.
Whatever happens, there’s no question that Tori will continue skating. “The most underestimated talent is perseverence,” says Kelly. “It’s easy to keep going when you’re winning. It’s when you’re losing that it counts.”
The print version of this article incorrectly identified Sonja Henie’s nationality. She was Norwegian.