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Why a small Adirondack mountain has made big, even Olympic, waves in skiing

Children and adults in ski clothing on a snowy mountain
Polar Bear Ski Club
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Polar Bear Ski Club (Facebook)
The newest generation of Polar Bear 'cubs' training on McCauley Mountain in Old Forge, NY

Erica Murray says she loves hearing spectators and competitors wonder why her skiers take up so much space on winners’ podiums.

"It is fun when you come to these races and they say, ‘Polar Bear who? Who are you guys? Where are you from?’” said the president of the Polar Bear Ski Club, which practices on McCauley Mountain in Old Forge, New York, in the heart of the Adirondacks.

The club has consistently made big waves in ski racing, and has even produced four Olympians – in a town with a population of less than 2,000.

One reason for this impressive ratio is that the ski resort is municipally-owned, which Murray says gives the one local school unique privileges, beginning with free rides.

“Imagine riding the bus to the mountain every day after school,” she said. “And imagine a town making sure your kids all have free ski passes so that they can get on that mountain every day.”

The Polar Bear Ski Club’s fees are cheaper than most clubs, which can range from $1,000 to tens of thousands of dollars per year. By contrast, it costs $125 to $225 to be a Polar Bear — for life.

That includes fees for coaches like Jeanine Phaneuf, who’s helped train the Polar Bears for 16 years, and is one of the many parents involved in the club, who do everything from fundraise to help run events on McCauley Mountain.

And for any families that can’t afford the fees, said Phaneuf, "We have scholarships, we have people in the community that will sponsor a kid, and we will help get them equipment as well.”

It’s that kind of spirit and support that makes the Polar Bear Ski Club so special, says her daughter, former Olympian Maddie Phaneuf.

“There’s a lot of clubs and organizations around the country for skiing that can kind of be a little bit intimidating and intense,” said the biathlete, but not the one where she learned to race.

“I think the Polar Bear Ski Club has its roots in community, in growth, and just getting kids…outside and excited about winter and skiing,” said Maddie Phaneuf, who was on the 2018 US Olympic team in Pyeongchang, Korea.

She’s the fourth Olympian the club has spawned, beginning with Gary Vaughn (1960 Olympics), John “Louie” Erhnsbeck (1968) and Hank Kashiwa (1972).

Maddie Phaneuf says skiing is integrated into the culture in her hometown: “It’s such a part of the community and everyone understands it.”

She says she doesn’t see that changing anytime soon, so she’s excited to see who the next Polar Bear Olympian will be.

Nate Harrington is a student reporter for WAER.