SARANAC LAKE - This tiny village seemed like the center of the world March 5 when 10 local Olympic athletes gathered on the corner of Broadway and Olive Street during a cloudless afternoon.
After greeting throngs of reporters, friends, neighbors, former school teachers and fans of all ages, Nordic combined gold and silver medalist Billy Demong led the other US Olympic Team members aboard a glittering red chariot - the centerpiece of a parade along the narrow, pockmarked street.
Local Boy Scouts and the SLHS Marching Band led the way from Broadway to Main Street followed by students from local schools, ORDA's Junior Bobsled Program and the Dewey Mountain Youth Ski League, among others.
The sidewalks, storefronts and balconies along Broadway and Main Street were filled with spectators ringing cowbells, waving signs and American flags in support of their favorite athletes.
As the first U.S. Nordic athlete to win an Olympic gold medal, Demong, of Vermontville, was the focal point of the ceremony. But all the athletes were given heartfelt homage, including biathlon World Cup leader and Olympic biathlete Tim Burke, of Paul Smiths; ski jumper Peter Frenette; lugers Chris Mazdzer and Emily Sweeney, all from Saranac Lake; biathletes Haley Johnson and Lowell Bailey; free-style aerialist Ashley Caldwell; luger Mark Grimmette, and bobsledder John Napier, all from Lake Placid.
Many onlookers were proud to see an Olympic ceremony take place in Saranac Lake.
"It's excellent for our village," said Saranac Lake resident Bob Colby. "It's nice to have this spirit here."
Ted Blazer, president of the Olympic Regional Development Authority, said he was thrilled to be a part of the celebration. He pointed out that ORDA and the Saranac Lake Woman's Civic Chamber organized the event.
"It's great to see our communities come together," Blazer said.
For a region that boasts of strong communities and environmental attributes, this homecoming was extremely gratifying for many community members.
"It gives you a kingly feeling to see how [the athletes] have matured and accomplished their goals, said Don Evans of Peru, who taught seventh grade Spanish to Mazdzer. "I remember when Chris told the class he was a luger and no one in the class knew what it was. That's certainly not the case today."
As the parade came to an end at the Harrietstown Town Hall, the cheering and excitement coalesced into a chant for the USA. Somebody in the crowd shouted "hip, hip hooray" and Demong lit an Olympic-style torch on the town hall steps.
The crowd then followed Demong and the other athletes into the town hall auditorium where the celebration continued.
"What a proud day not only to be an American, but to be from the North Country," shouted state Assemblywoman Teresa Sayward in front of a packed auditorium. "This group of athletes represents some of the best role models our children could ever have."
Several other state and local politicians also took the stage to praise the athletes and shower them with plaques, full sized American flags, and other symbolic items in a show of the community's appreciation for their achievements. But it was the speech given by Demong near the end of the event that simultaneously captured the mood of the crowd and the gaze of about 100 youngsters seated on the floor in the front of the auditorium.
"If there's one thing I truly hope comes out of this medal, I hope more kids get out and try these sports that we love to do here in the North Country," Demong said. "I hope these medals go into the collective consciousness of these little ones and that someday this will be thought of as the beginning of Nordic domination in the United States."
Demong also addressed the whole audience saying, "This is the only room where people can say, 'boy, do you remember when Billy did that stupid thing,' but everyone in this room helped me get here. I hope you all feel like you were a part of it, because you were."
After the ceremony, with the streets still blocked, pedestrians continued to gather together, loosely connected by a lingering vibe of energy and pride. Though lower in the sky, the sun was still bright, the bars and caf were bustling and a street vendor served up some local fare: firehouse dogs and Michigans.
The potential for greatness in these 10 athletes brought the North Country together and, for a moment, Saranac Lake was truly able to shine.