I am very fortunate to live in a small village of around 5,000 residents in the Adirondack Park of New York. This is one of the most pristine areas in the world situated in a 6,000 acre protected area of mountains, forests, and lakes. Tourism is our primary industry with Lake Placid serving as the centerpiece. Hosting the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympics – Placid and surrounding communities like Saranac Lake where I live are known around the world for winter sports and cold temperatures. What is most impressive about the area is the people who although growing up in a rather isolated region have all of the drive, passion, and enthusiasm that one would typically expect of individuals who grew up in more urban areas. My little village has produced more than two-dozen Olympic athletes since 1932 – many who stood on the medals stage in representation of their country. There is an extreme sense of pride in these accomplishments that have influenced a movement of youngsters who commit to the Olympic effort at an early age. Alpine and Nordic skiing are as common as walking, snowshoes are part of every persons essential equipment, at least one bobsled ride is in everyone’s future, and our curling club is growing in popularity every year. For those who prefer summer – there are Iron Man competition trainees around every corner, competition cyclists, distance runners, hikers and climbers, kayakers and canoeists, and very serious sport fisherman. All in all, an area of highly competitive, fitness oriented, extremely dedicated people.
So – what does this have to do with chefs, cooks, and kitchen life? As I watched Chris Mazdzar from Saranac Lake win his silver medal in the luge the other day I was struck by the attitude and passion that it takes to reach for such a lofty goal and how each of us who stands in front of a range can learn so much from the character of a competitive athlete. As I reflected on what it took for Chris to invest what he has to reach that medal stage for his country I thought of the following lessons that we can all take home:
 ALL IN:
If you truly want to be successful in whatever you choose to do in life you must be totally committed. You are either all in or never able to truly compete. Go big or go home is the rule of thumb for Olympic athletes and a point in the right direction for cooks who seek to become chefs and chefs who intend to make a difference.
 TAKE ON THE RESPONSIBILITY:
Nothing is given to athletes for free. Every ounce of strength, every second of time off a race, every cut on a ski edge or skate, every clean run on the luge or skeleton sled, and every additional inch on a 90 meter ski jump is earned because the athlete took full responsibility for that progress. A cook will reach the pinnacle of his or her career through this same acceptance of responsibility, this same dedication to learning and improving skills – nothing is given away – it must be earned.
 RELY ON EACH OTHER:
I know many of these local athletes; many grew up with my own children. These Olympians, as talented and hard working as they are as individuals, are close and supportive of every other athlete and any one else who simply wants to learn how to appreciate the sport as a novice. Everyone relies on each other for support, encouragement, and an occasional push. They all want that medal around their neck but sincerely feel such pride when one of their teammates and friends earns their time on the stage.
It’s hard to imagine the pride that an athlete has in his or her effort, how hard it is when they fall short, but most importantly how thoroughly, and emotionally proud the community is in their effort. This is what creates a winning atmosphere this is what every restaurant kitchen needs and when it happens what draws enthusiastic people to a life of cooking.
This morning – over 1,000 locals in Saranac Lake moved around their schedules to stand outside in below freezing weather to watch a jumbo screen feed of Chris Mazdzar and Team USA put forth their best effort in the luge relay. To see friends, neighbors, children, up-in-coming young winter athletes, business owners, seniors, and local politicians all cheering on their hometown hero was one of the more inspiring things that I have witnessed in a long time. Pride is the breakfast of champions.
 PUSH YOURSELF FURTHER THAN YOU THOUGHT YOU COULD:
Keeping in mind that a professional athlete has a single focus it is still amazing to watch the everyday effort that is required to perform at the highest level. These individuals work countless hours to knock a half second off their time or add a few inches to a jump. Once they reach a goal they set their sights on a new one. It is this relentless pursuit of excellence that separates the best from the also ran. The same is true in professional kitchens. Those who are at the highest level of excellence are there because they continually push themselves to improve a little more each and every day.
 FOR THE LOVE OF THE SPORT:
It would be impossible to put forth this type of effort, this hard and sometimes painful work regiment and deal with the constant shadow of failure unless they truly loved the sport, the spirit of competition, and the sometimes imminent danger that looms around the corner unless they truly felt that this was their destiny. It may seem extreme, but those cooks and chefs who make a difference are the ones who know, deep in their hearts that the kitchen is their home and their opportunity in life is to cook for others.
Although at this level athletes are sponsored, they are not really paid for their efforts. They are grateful for their opportunity in sport and are taught over many years that this is an honor, a talent that is bestowed on them, and a life opportunity to be an example for others. I am always impressed with Olympic athletes sportsmanship example. When in competition the drive is fierce, but the camaraderie is always evident. This is one of the few true examples of putting aside differences in culture and reveling in the common thread of commitment that it took to get to this level. This is not always evident in professional sports where paychecks go to everyone’s head – but in the Olympics it is one unified group of professionals. Everyone can learn from this example.
The personal honors are evident, and in some cases a successful non-professional athlete may eventually wind up with a related career that compensates them well, but what is evidently important to every competitor in the Olympic games is that they are extremely proud to represent their team and their country. There are few greater visual depictions of pride in country than at the games. Chefs and cooks represent something bigger than themselves whenever they tie on an apron and prepare a plate of food. That dish in the kitchen “pass” represents the cooking team, the restaurant, and every professional cook in America. We can all learn from the ability to put aside what we see as wrong and polar opposite to our personal feelings and beliefs and represent something bigger than ourselves when given the opportunity.
 NEVER GIVE UP:
Success for athletes often comes as a result of making many mistakes, falling down and getting right back up, and fighting through the pain of failure only to jump back on the horse. So many athletes that we watch are competing for the third or fourth time in the Olympics – still willing to work even harder at another opportunity to reach their goals. Never giving up is the attitude of a winner regardless of the endeavor. If at first you don’t succeed – try, try again.
My hat goes off to athletes from all over the world who are putting themselves out there and giving the effort more than most of us could ever dream of. They are true role models for each and every one of us. Watch the games and think about how you might apply a similar effort to what you do – are you in it to win it or just along for the ride?
CONGRATULATIONS TO OUR UPSTATE NEW YORK LOCAL ATHLETES! You inspire me.
Chris Mazdzar, Tim Burke, Andrew Weibrecht, Erin Hamlin, Codie Basue, Morgan Schild, Brian Gionta, Jordan Greenway, David Leggio, Emily Pfalzer, Maddie Phaneuf, Lowell Bailey, Justin Krewson, Tommy Biesemeyer, Jonathan Lillis, Trica Mangan.
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