LAKE PLACID - Haley Johnson may likely represent the United States at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada in February, but this home-grown athlete still remains firmly rooted in the community.
Johnson, a 27-year-old native of Lake Placid, recently left for Sweden in preparation for the 2009-10 Biathlon World Cup. Over the next several weeks, she will have a series of opportunities to secure her place on the U.S. Olympic team.
"I am really excited about this upcoming season," said Johnson. "I head into winter training and the [World Cup] competitions the strongest I've ever been."
There are four slots open for the U.S. Olympic team for women's biathlon. Up to two women can qualify by finishing in the top 30 in any event on the World Cup circuit. Remaining slots will be filled in mid-January based on an Olympic qualifying event in Germany.
Johnson is one of three women on the U.S. World Cup team, all of whom competed in last year's World Cup. She was the only one with a top-30 finish in a major event, nabbing 23rd place in the 15 km individual race at the 2009 World Championships in Korea.
Still, the journey for this Olympic hopeful began with her father on a little slope behind her family's Lake Placid home where, at the age of two, she strapped on her first pair of skis.
She and her two younger siblings, Kara, 24, and Lars, 18, both accomplished skiers, each developed their skills early on the slopes of Whiteface and other nearby trails.
"My parents chose to raise us in the Adirondacks because of the outdoor opportunities and our family ties to the town," Johnson said, "and thus, from a very early age we all were very lucky to be involved with skiing."
The tradition of skiing in Johnson's family goes back quite a ways in Lake Placid. Her grandfather, Bill Hovey, was a prominent alpine and waterski instructor here in the 1950s, and a ski trail on Mount Whitney is named in tribute to him. Her father spent many years as a volunteer and freestyle youth coach for the New York Ski Education Foundation.
Haley naturally got involved in the Lake Placid Ski Club youth programs through NYSEF, where she developed an affinity for skiing, especially downhill. She went on to attend the nearby National Sports Academy to pursue alpine skiing at a higher level.
"It turned out that I really wasn't having fun with it anymore," Johnson said, "and at the same time, my Earth Science teacher, also the local NYSEF Nordic coach, Kris Cheney-Seymour, urged and encouraged me to give cross-country a try. I did, loved it, and made an immediate switch."
From there, she picked up biathlon, which combines cross-country skiing and rifle-shooting.
"I liked biathlon, mainly because it is something that I was then able to continue throughout the winter and train for in Lake Placid," she said.
Johnson said growing up in the Olympic Village provided just the right people and facilities to fuel her interest in traditional winter sports.
"I not only skied, but also tried speed skating and figure skating," she said. "I could have even pursued one of the sliding sports if I desired."
Biathlon stuck, however, and Johnson continued to compete while attending college in Maine. As her skills developed and she began qualifying for more international competitions, she gained more financial support and decided to train full-time at the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid.
Johnson said competing overseas and traveling to other ski towns throughout the world has given her even more of an appreciation for the Adirondacks.
"After spending time training in Sweden, while at college, and in northern Maine, it was great to return home," said Johnson. "I've always believed that local support is the best support. Living at the Training Center also makes it affordable to train back here. And now I know I am training in the best place possible."
Still, Johnson remembers the mentors in her hometown who had such an impact on her. In an effort to give some of that back to the community, she makes regular visits to a class of fourth graders at Lake Placid Elementary School.
"We talk about skiing, traveling the world, and following your goals when I am in class," she said, "and when I travel we'll connect through e-mail and my blog. Last year, I worked with the sixth grade at St. Agnes School."
Johnson may be on the road for a while with competitions scheduled nearly every week December through March, but she no doubt has the support of her hometown fans, both young and old, in her quest for Olympic glory.