As we prepare for the Games of XXX across the pond, nestled in the Adirondack Mountains is a quiet Olympic engine fueled by the hopes of tomorrow’s great athletes. Nowhere is this Olympic ethos more evident than the site of the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympics amid the lakes and mountains of Northern New York.
Viewed as a mecca of winter sports competition, Lake Placid and the Saranac Lake region play a major role in serving the training and learning needs of year round athletes. Beyond its memorable legacy of ice hockey, figure skating, skiing and bobsledding, the US Olympic Training Center in New York hosts judo, synchronized swimming, water polo, wrestling, canoeing and kayaking, among other sports. Though today’s crop of Olympic competitors may be too young to remember, there was a time when North Country Community College was the official college of the Winter Olympics (1980). Thirty-two years later, North Country’s legacy of outdoor leadership and Olympic training lives on – near the bucolic shores of Saranac Lake, and the birthplace of “pioneering health resorts” – a term coined by Dr. E.L. Trudeau when he discovered that this pristine environment provided relief from tuberculosis. Trudeau observed that quality of life in natural environs surrounded by splendid isolation might be the best medical laboratory available to heal a wide range of stress-related ailments – and the best source of wellness and longevity.
An embodiment of life-long learning, wellness and fitness, NCCC educates students in the fields of outdoor leadership, leisure, and sports management. NCCC’s signature Wilderness Recreation Leadership program is one of the oldest of its kind – blending core values of recreational leadership and environmental stewardship.
Situated in one of the nation’s most protected natural habitats, the WRL program cultivates collaborations with athletic and sports organizations, natural resource and land management agencies, state and federal parks, and other environmental agencies and ecotourism organizations. These internships and field study provide hands-on learning opportunities for NCCC’s aspiring students. Students also learn from internship opportunities at the Olympic Regional Development Authority sites like Whiteface Mountain, the Herb Brooks Arena, The Bobsled/Skelton and Luge Federations and the Olympic Sports Complex. During the capstone practicum, WRL students are required to live in the wildness for 30 days – unplugged from cell phones and video games, and without the amenities of home or dormitories. Unpredictable environmental conditions challenge students to develop their own leadership style, and as importantly, create resourcefulness and ingenuity- qualities often missing in today’s typical workplace. North Country’s Provost Carole Richardson put it simply, “Many of our graduates … use the valuable leadership, problem solving, and life skills learned at WRL to achieve their own entrepreneurial goals.”
Looking west for comparative models, Colorado Mountain College’s Outdoor Recreation Leadership program stands out, for its special emphasis on business management principles, group development, communication and conflict resolution. Colorado Mountain’s program stresses leave no trace stewardship, and uniquely, it awards a Bachelor’s Degree in Sustainability Science for those choosing to major in this emergent field of study.
Founded in 1965 by legendary mountaineer, Paul Petzoldt, the National Outdoor Leadership School is predicated on a belief that leadership skills are acquired – a philosophy that every student when challenged by adverse conditions will, by natural instinct and methodical pre-planning, thrive. NOLS partners with Central Wyoming College to offer student credits toward an Associate’s Degree. NOLS educates students to use responsible recreation practices. Today, NOLS hosts programs on every continent, a pioneer in fostering global stewards of the planet’s natural environment.
So, what do wilderness, ecotourism, hunting, fishing and adventure guides, park rangers, and natural resource specialists have in common? The answer is a strong sense of environmental stewardship - becoming part of the sustainable solution in conserving our fragile ecosystem. At a time when policymakers, regulators, and accreditors are restructuring and reforming the nation’s higher education system, the notion of navigating new waters and hiking undiscovered peaks, inspires self-confidence, instills a genuine spirit of entrepreneurship, and risk taking for the next generation of outdoor leaders.