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Where to check out high-stakes winter sports in Greater Rochester

The Olympics at home 

Where to check out high-stakes winter sports in Greater Rochester

Every two years, the world's powers put their differences aside, send their best athletes to one destination, and watch them compete in events ranging from graceful to ruthless to downright dangerous, all to prove their global superiority. That's the idiosyncratic and glorious spirit of the Olympics that takes hold of our hearts — and the attention span of a good chunk of the world — for 17 glorious days.

From Friday, February 7, through Sunday, February 23, athletes who have fought through national championships and Olympic trials for months (or in some cases, even years), will have their shot at gold in Sochi, Russia, during the XXII Olympic Winter Games. While watching the action of high-flying aerial ski stunts, artistic skating arabesques and triple toe loops, speed-demon bobsledding, and rough-and-tough hockey games on TV is all well and good, it's impossible to beat watching the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat when it is happening live, right in front of your face.

You don't have to go all the way to Sochi to watch these winter sports. You can watch or even participate in many of these activities without going too far outside the Greater Rochester area, or spending thousands of dollars on a plane ticket and Russian language lessons. Here's a look at some ways to watch — or, for you more adventurous types, even try out — some Olympic sports right in your back yard.

Curling

click to enlarge Learn more about the fascinating sport of curling with the - Rochester Curling Club. - FILE PHOTO
  • FILE PHOTO
  • Learn more about the fascinating sport of curling with the Rochester Curling Club.

Curling, once regarded as an oddball Canadian sport, has grown in popularity since being added permanently to the Winter Olympic roster in 1998. Those flashy uniforms worn by the Norwegian men's team in the 2010 Vancouver games probably turned a few heads, too. (Just wait until you see what they're wearing this year.)

The outfits on the players at the Rochester Curling Club may be tamer, but the sport is just as fun to watch. The club started in 1961, at first renting space at the RIT skating rink, before moving to its own facilities on Deep Rock Road (near the airport) in 1967. The space includes four sheets of ice on which the club plays, a warm room (with a fully stocked bar — drinking and socializing are an integral part of curling), and locker rooms for regular members.

Curling is like chess on a sheet of ice; players must be swift, calculating, and coordinated. Two teams of four take turns gliding massive stones toward a target (the "house") on the other end of the ice. Two of the players use brooms to sweep in front of the stone to help maneuver it toward the target, which is picked out by the fourth player, who serves as a strategist. After all 16 stones have been thrown, points are awarded to the team with the stone closest to the center of the target (the "button").

There are about a thousand other rules. But even if you don't understand it all, there will more than likely be a curler sitting in the warm room willing to answer all your questions. It must be the Canadian roots of curling — seemingly everyone involved with the sport is friendly.

The club, which has more than 200 members, has league games every weekday from October to April, and college games on weekend nights. The club will host two more bonspiels — the curling equivalent of a tournament — this season: the Raymond Kayser Memorial Bonspiel (February 13-16) and the Rochester International Bonspiel (March 28-30). If you like what you see and want to try your hand at curling, the club offers lessons for amateurs as young as 8. For more information about open houses, lessons, and bonspiels, visit rochestercurling.org.

Ice Hockey

click to enlarge You can catch professional hockey with the Rochester Americans at Blue Cross Arena. - PHOTO PROVIDED
  • PHOTO PROVIDED
  • You can catch professional hockey with the Rochester Americans at Blue Cross Arena.

Considering our long, icy winters and proximity to Canada, it's no surprise that Rochester is a hockey town. It's one of 26 cities in the United States (plus four in Canada) to have an American Hockey League team. The Rochester Americans is actually one of the oldest franchises in the AHL, celebrating its 57th season this year. Because of an affiliation with the Buffalo Sabres, the Amerks serve as an incubator for budding talent, which can mean some pretty exciting plays from emerging players (you know, before the Sabres call them up to play). From October through mid-April, the team plays once or twice a week, nearly every week, at the Blue Cross Arena. Tickets cost roughly $20-$25 depending on where you want to sit, and can be purchased through the Blue Cross Arena box office, Ticketmaster, or online at amerks.com.

On the college front, RIT's men's and women's hockey teams are a blast to watch. The men's team made it as far as the NCAA Division I semi-finals (colloquially the Frozen Four) in 2010. Both teams participated in the Frozen Frontier series at Frontier Field this year and are gearing up for next season, when they'll skate in a new arena. RIT hockey's seasons run through March (depending on how the teams do in championship games), with home games taking place at Frank Ritter Memorial Ice Arena (51 Lomb Memorial Drive). Tickets cost $5-$15 per game and can be purchased online at rithockey.com or by calling 475-4121. The men's team will play in the Atlantic Hockey Tournament, hosted at the Blue Cross Arena March 21-22.

Figure Skating

click to enlarge Several area skating rinks have open skates, including the outdoor space at Manhattan Square Park. - FILE PHOTO
  • FILE PHOTO
  • Several area skating rinks have open skates, including the outdoor space at Manhattan Square Park.

Unfortunately, no major figure-skating tours or competitions are scheduled for our area this year. The closest the Stars on Ice tour gets is Albany on April 18 (check starsonice.com for more information and tickets). Still, there are half a dozen clubs in the area that offer lessons for anyone dreaming of being the next Dorothy Hamill, Michelle Kwan, or Brian Boitano.

Among them, the Genesee Figure Skating Club (geneseefsc.org) was founded in 1954 and has sent countless athletes to national and international competitions. Among its more famous alumni are Richard Callaghan, best known as the coach of Todd Eldredge and Olympic gold medalist Tara Lipinski. The club offers lessons for beginning skaters up to advanced athletes. Speaking of lessons, Webster Skating School (websterskatingschool.com) has a new session starting at the beginning of March.

In addition to lessons, the Thomas Creek Figure Skating Club (thomascreekfsc.com) also has two synchronized figure-skating teams. The Premier Skating Academy at the Sports Centre the Bill Gray's Regional Iceplex (billgraysiceplex.com) also offers lessons, starting with the basics of skating and balance and working up to jumps. Registration is currently closed for this season. There's also the Skating Club of the Finger Lakes (scfl.info), which uses the Wilson Ice Arena at SUNY Geneseo and offers adult skating classes (registration is currently closed for the season).

For those who prefer to skate out on their own, several local ice rinks hold open skates regularly, and most offer rentals if you don't have your own pair of skates. Manhattan Square Park (also know as Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Park & Ice Rink; 353 Court St.) has open skating at its outdoor rink Monday through Saturday between noon and 9 p.m., and on Sundays between noon and 7 p.m. through mid-March (weather dependent). Genesee Valley Park has an indoor rink (131 Elmwood Ave.) and has open skate hours Monday through Friday noon-1:15 p.m., Saturdays 5-6:15 p.m. and Sundays 2:30-3:45 p.m. through March. Visit cityofrochester.gov for rental rates and more information on both rinks.

Speed Skating

If you prefer raw speed to lutzes and arabesques, check out speed skating. It's both exhausting and exhilarating to watch the skaters gracefully zip around tracks in mere minutes, all the while neck and neck with their competitors. It's a wonder how they don't fall over as they round corners at speeds you typically only clock in your car. (The top athletes at the Olympics can hurl themselves around a 500-meter track in 35 to 40 seconds, with an average speed of 30 to 32 miles per hour).

The fearless speed demons at the Rochester Speedskating Club are constantly chasing those record lap times. There are 50 members of the team, who range in age from 4 to 76 and in skill from novice to two national champions, and three who have trained at the Olympic center in Salt Lake City. Local Olympian Cathy Turner is among the members rushing around the ice on a regular basis. She won gold for the 500m in 1992 and 1994, and the silver and bronze in the 3000m relay in 1992 and 1994 respectively. Members will head to Lake Placid for the Empire State Games (February 6-9) and the Lake Placid Marathon (February 14-15), as well as the Long Track Nationals in Minnesota later in the month.

Nearly all of the team's competitions are open to spectators for free. You can also catch the team practicing Tuesdays and Thursdays at the Sports Centre at MCC and the Genesee Valley Ice Arena on Saturdays and Mondays. For any daredevils willing to try it out, RSST hosts learn-to-skate sessions starting in the fall; check rochesterspeedskating.org.

Alpine Skiing

click to enlarge You can participate in or watch - downhill skiing and snowboarding - at Bristol Mountain. - FILE PHOTO
  • FILE PHOTO
  • You can participate in or watch downhill skiing and snowboardingat Bristol Mountain.

Like many of the other Winter Olympic sports, alpine skiing is all about speed and snow. It's both incredibly terrifying and oddly invigorating to fly down the side of a snow-covered mountain at 50 to 80 miles per hour with two boards strapped to your feet. You never know exactly what's over the next crest, but you take that leap (literally and figuratively) and hope like hell that you make it down in one piece.

Alpine skiing in the Olympics includes five sub-categories of racing: downhill, slalom, giant slalom, super-giant slalom (super-G), and combined for both men and women. Slalom racers must be the most accurate, as the course requires short, tight turns. On the other end of the spectrum, giant slalom racers breeze through widely spaced turns down the mountain. Super-giant slalom have very few turns and widely spaced gates, allowing skiers to hit max speeds of 60 to 65 miles per hour.

Locally, former members of the Austrian national ski team and local ski enthusiasts founded the Bristol Mountain Race Club (bristolraceteam.org) in 1965, making it one of the first of its kind in New York State. The non-profit organization has sent countless skiers to state, national, and international competitions.

Bristol Mountain in Canandaigua (bristolmountain.com) hosts several races throughout the season, many of them sanctioned by the United States Ski and Snowboard Association. On Sunday, February 9, the mountain will host the GVSC/NIA Inter-Council Under 14 Giant Slalom race. Spectators can watch from the bottom of the mountain (or better yet, on the lift ride to the top) for the price of a lift ticket.

Even when there aren't races at Bristol, there are often gates set up along one or half of a slope for Race Club members. Skiers ages 8 to 20 can join by visiting the Race Club website for schedules and rates. For the 21-plus crowd, there is Bristol's Adult Race League, which includes gate training on National Standard Race-type courses on Tuesday mornings and Wednesday nights. The group will conclude its 2014 season February 11-12.

There might be something in the snow at Swain Resort (swain.com), where four-time Olympian, bronze medalist, and World Cup ski racer A.J. Kitt got his start at age 2. In Kitt's honor, the mountain hosts the Kitt Cup, a season-long race series every Friday 6-8 p.m. It's open to anyone, and you can race all season long or just once. The same is true for the NASTAR course, open to the public most Fridays 4-6 p.m. throughout the season. Admission will cost between $1 and $10, depending on the date.

Swain also has a ski-racing team and lessons, and hosts practices and races for several local Section 5 high-school athletes and the RIT and Alfred University teams. The mountain also hosts several USSA races for juniors (ages 8-23) and masters (adults) throughout the season. Adult racing lessons and the Mountain Monsters program for kids ages 6-12 will be wrapping up in the next week or so, as the mountain prepares to host the Genesee Region Special Olympics on February 9.

Freestyle Skiing & Snowboarding

Freestyle skiing and snowboarding are relative newcomers to the Olympic Winter Games, with the first freestyle events appearing in the 1992 games and the first snowboarding events starting in 1998. This year's games will feature ski halfpipe and ski and snowboarding slopestyle competitions for the first time. Other kinds of freestyle and snowboard competitions include moguls (skiing through large bumps on the slope as quickly as possible), and skicross and snowboard cross (racing down a slope that includes various terrain park-like jumps, rails, and rollers). Snowboarders will also compete in the parallel slalom for the first time in Sochi. It's similar to ski slalom, just on a snowboard.

If alpine skiing's rush of speed isn't enough to get your adrenaline going, these ski and snowboard events may be up your alley. Competitors can fly as high as 24 feet above the ground while doing as many flips or tricks as possible before landing. It's the kind of sport that requires a little extra creativity and a lot of practice and skill.

Bristol Mountain is home to two freestyle teams: the Alpine Freestyle Team (skiers) and the Snowboard Freestyle Team, both USSA/USASA supported teams which compete in state and national events. Some of its members have gone on to the U.S. national teams. In March, Bristol will host the Bump This Competition (date TBA). Admission for spectators is included with a lift ticket ($48-$62). For more info on the team, events, lessons, and the Bristol Training Center, visit bristolmountain.com.

Cross-Country Skiing

Cross-country skiing is the winter equivalent of track events in the summer Olympics, with skiers participating in long-distance and sprint races. Like in alpine races, speed is still the key, but instead of letting gravity propel them, competitors mainly rely on their own strength and endurance to push them across the snowy trails.

The Rochester Cross-Country Ski Foundation (rxcsf.org) has been helping groom top-notch racers, both young and old, since the 1970's. The youth league (ages 13 and under) practices Saturday mornings at various locations, including Mendon Ponds Park, Harriet Hollister Spencer State Recreational Area, and Bristol Mountain Nordic Center. The juniors division (23 and under), known as Rochester Nordic Racing, began in 2008, and 80 percent of its athletes qualified for the Mid-Atlantic Junior National Team, and everyone on the team qualified for Eastern High School Championships. The group practices year-round with strength training and endurance runs, swapping out skis for rollerblades in the spring, summer, and fall. Visit www.rochesternordicracing.com for more info.



Lake Placid road trip

The Adirondacks site of the 1932 and 1980 Olympic games offers ample winter sports options

click to enlarge Olympic Village at Lake Placid. - FILE PHOTO
  • FILE PHOTO
  • Olympic Village at Lake Placid.

Lake Placid is probably about as close as the Olympics have gotten — or will likely ever get — to Rochester. The Adirondacks hotspot hosted the 1932 and 1980 games. The Olympic facilities built for the 1980 winter games are still there and are only about five hours away by car. This year, Lake Placid will relight the Olympic caldron at the site of the 1980 opening ceremony as the public is invited to race down the 3,100-foot vertical drop on Whiteface Mountain or across 31 miles of cross-country trails. You can also hurl yourself down the 26-story giant slalom course that's as long as a football field; glide across the same rink where the U.S. men's hockey team pulled off the "Miracle on Ice"; practice your double toe loop in the same place Sonja Henie won her second gold medal; barrel down a nearly mile-long bobsled and luge track at break-neck speeds; or relive the history of the games at the Olympic museum.

"For those who want to feel a part of the Olympic spirit, Lake Placid is the winter sports capital of the world," says Jon Lundin of the New York State Olympic Regional Development Authority.

For the less daring, Lake Placid has several competitions and special events throughout the winter to get you into the Olympic spirit. In December 2013, Lake Placid hosted more than 200 athletes from 28 countries for the World Cup skeleton and bobsled races. And in January, several top skiers took on a mogul field and an aerial ski jump. The aerial jump was the last event through which athletes could qualify for the Sochi games.

"[For many of these sports] there's that danger element, and it's absolutely amazing that there are athletes in the world who not only excel at it, but they want to do it and they were born and raised to do that. It's absolutely incredible," Lundin says.

From February 6 to February 9, more than 1,000 athletes from across the state will take part in the 34th Annual Empire State Games in Lake Placid. The event features all the same sports as the Sochi Olympics, and a few that aren't featured at this year's games, including ski orienteering and snowshoeing. There will be free, family-friendly events for the public on Saturday, February 8, 5-7 p.m. as part of the Empire Fun Fest. Visit empirestatewintergames.com for a full schedule of events.

If you're not up for an adrenaline rush, or bitter cold isn't for you, Lake Placid still has you covered. The Olympic facilities are home to a museum that displays old equipment from the games, medals, and historical footage. It is open year-round (admission costs $5-$7). Downtown, the Lake Placid Center for the Arts is hosting an exhibit of art inspired by the 1932 and 1980 games (lakeplacidarts.org). There are also giant TV screens tuned to the games in Sochi, so you'll never miss the Olympic action.

For you daring, die-hard Olympic fans who maybe didn't make the cut to go to Sochi, you're in luck. The Olympic facility in Lake Placid is hosting its own mini-Olympics, called the Winter Classic, February 6-23. If you complete in 10 of the 12 games offered (bobsled, skeleton, luge, cross-country skiing, alpine racing, ski jumping, hockey, curling, speed skating, figure skating, and Olympic museum trivia) you'll be awarded the "gold medal" prize package (two ski-lift tickets to Whiteface Mountain, a t-shirt and commemorative pin). You don't even have to do well. If you complete six of the games, you'll get the t-shirt and pin. If you only have time for three events, they'll give you the pin.

"It's all about having fun and getting people into the spirit," Lundin says. "You can take in these Olympic-caliber sports without paying the Olympic-caliber prices." For hours of operation and prices, visit whiteface.com/activities/winterchallenge.



Local Olympians

Members of the 2014 U.S. Olympic team from Upstate New York State

·      Lowell Bailey (Men's Biathlon, from Lake Placid)

·      Jamie Greubel (Women's Bobsled, from Lake Placid)

·      Ryan Callahan (Men's Ice Hockey, from Rochester)

·      Ryan Miller (Men's Ice Hockey, plays for Buffalo Sabres)

·      Jonathon Lillis (Freestyle Alpine Skiing, from Pittsford)

·      Andrew Weibrecht (Alpine Skiing, from Lake Placid)


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