In the sport of bobsled, Hunter Church is one of the United States’ brightest rising stars. In January, the 21-year-old from Cadyville, New York, steered the four-man sled that qualified Team USA for a third slot in the 2018 Olympic Games. Had it not been for Church’s near flawless 54.66-second run, Team USA would only have two sleds competing in Pyeongchang.
“It was in that moment where not only did I just accomplish something great, but I finally realized my destiny in this sport is something more than just coming up here and sliding and having fun,” Church said. “There’s real potential here to be great.”
To achieve that greatness, Church has relentlessly trained since he was 12 on the bobsled track in the Lake Placid Olympic Training Complex – the same one used in the 1980 Olympic Winter Games. In the nearly four decades since, New York taxpayers have provided the funds to keep that track and other former Olympic venues open for aspiring Olympians.
“If we didn’t have the funding to do this, I’m not sure where I would be right now,” Church said.
Winter athletes and their neighbors in the Adirondack Mountains have long praised Albany for funneling subsidies to the upstate Olympic Training Facility. But last year some downstate lawmakers criticized Gov. Andrew Cuomo for diverting almost $5 million from the 2016 MTA budget to the Olympic Regional Development Authority (ORDA), the quasi-state agency that manages Lake Placid’s Olympic venues.
“The MTA is supposed to be for the mass transit system here in New York City and its surrounding suburbs, and yet millions of dollars were going upstate to finance a ski resort,” said state Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria). “It struck a lot of us as odd, especially at a time when the MTA is in a desperate situation. The trains are breaking down. They’re not running on time. Delays are increasing by the day.”
At the time, the Cuomo administration defended sending the $5 million payment to ORDA, saying it was a routine way of reimbursing the state for money the MTA owed to Albany. It’s also worth noting, $5 million is a tiny fraction of the nearly $7 billion Albany sends to the MTA annually.
Still, the cash transfer has given birth to a simple question: should any money intended for the downstate subway tracks go to help fund an upstate bobsled track?
If you ask Jon Lundin, spokesman for ORDA, those state subsidies aren’t just paying for a bobsled track, or an ice arena, or a speed skating oval. He said those state funds are investments in Olympic gold.
“If you want to become a Winter Olympian, at some point during a stage of your development you’re going to wind up here in Lake Placid,” Lundin said.
The bobsled/luge/skeleton track in Lake Placid is one of just two Olympic-sized bobsled/luge/skeleton tracks in the entire country. The other one is in Park City, Utah -- itself the site of the 2002 Olympic Winter Games. There are only four such tracks in all of North America.
“The fact that we have one so close to home, it’s a real blessing,” Church said.
Despite winning that Olympic qualifying round and securing a third USA bobsled to compete the 2018 Winter Games, Hunter Church was not chosen to represent Team USA in South Korea. It was disappointing to him, but he is young and determined to train even harder for the 2022 Games.
If you swing by the bobsled track in Lake Placid over the next four years, you may well Church practicing.
“I do this for my country, my God, and my family,” Church said. “Every run I take. Every rep I take in the weight room is for them.”