FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: 08/16/2022
CONTACT: Jon Lundin, Lake Placid 2023 FISU World University Games Head of Communications & Media ([email protected]) Tel: 518-637-6885
By Meri-Jo Borzilleri
LAKE PLACID, N.Y. — When Nordic combined skier Jim Miller was chosen to light the cauldron to open the Lake Placid 1972 FISU World University Games, he was humbled and honored. A national champion from Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo., Miller was proud to be named the U.S. flag-bearer at the previous FISU Games, in Rovaniemi, Finland in 1970, but this was different for the 20-something skier.
“I lived in Maine. Lake Placid was kind of like home turf,” he said.
Lake Placid will again host the winter edition of the FISU World University Games Jan. 12-22, 2023. It is the world’s largest international winter multisport event for collegiate athletes, featuring more than 2,500 athletes and delegates from over 50 countries and 600 universities.
It’s the first time the winter edition of the FISU World University Games will be held in the U.S. since 1972. That year, officials met Miller at the gas station across from the James C. Sheffield Olympic Speed Skating Oval, where they explained the Opening Ceremony routine: jog with the torch around the oval’s infield, then up some steps, and wait for the signal to touch the flame to the cauldron.
It turned out to be anything but routine.
As he trotted up the first set of stairs on the Lake Placid High School building’s hillside, the fuel dribbled down the torch and onto his gloved hand. Miller calmly kept jogging up the steps, torch aloft, while hurriedly brushing small flames from his glove.
On a flat section, he slowed before his climb up the final 20 steps to the cauldron. His white wool uniform sweater caught fire. “My whole arm was engulfed. My sweater was engulfed in flames,” he said.
Local volunteer firefighters on hand moved to stop him. “They said, ‘Your arm’s on fire — let’s put it out!’” Miller said. “And I said, ‘No way! I can’t let you put that out and have the flame go out! I’ll do it when I get back.’”
His sleeve still burning, Miller ascended the stairs within an enclosed column, two stories high and hidden from view. When he reached the top, he was dismayed to find how much higher the cauldron was situated. “I thought, ‘Those idiots,’” he remembered, laughing. “They don’t know how small I was. I’m only 5-foot-4. I don’t know if I can reach it.” Fueled by emotion and adrenaline, Miller stretched the torch as far as he could and the flame caught. The cauldron lit.
For a moment, he forgot about his burning sleeve.
“I looked out over that crowd – I just got chills and thought, ‘Wow, what an honor this is.’ When I lit it, people were cheering like crazy. I put out a yelp, too. I think I said, ‘Let the Games begin. Yahoo!’”
Miller “wanted to stay up there forever,” but firefighters were yelling from below. “Get down, get down quick!” He did, and they smothered his sleeve with a blanket. The FISU flame, however, would burn strong from above for the nine days of the Games.
Miller escaped unharmed. He can’t remember how he did in his competition (he did not medal). He would go on to compete in the 1975 FISU World University Games in Livigno, Italy, his third FISU Games. After his competitive days ended, Miller spent part of his adult life as an executive in the Wyoming oil industry, then as a special education teacher and 30-year ski coach for the local club and high schools in Casper, where he lives now.
Miller’s parents, Al and Ally, had everyone on skis as youngsters. His brother, Pat, was a Hall-of-Fame director of the University of Utah ski program. His sister, Leslie, and brother, Sandy, skied competitively at the collegiate and national level. His son, also named Jim, is a longtime USA Cycling coach and director.
Jim returned to Lake Placid as part of a small crew that worked the graveyard shift, raking and maintaining the Nordic trails during the 1980 Olympic Winter Games. His nephew attended Lake Placid’s National Sports Academy during high school. Jim keeps in touch with Lake Placid Olympian Joe Lamb.
Miller describes Lake Placid as “a friendly town and the crowds know about skiing. There were always crowds whether it was cross country or ski jumping. I always loved jumping off that jump. To this day, I still remember the rides that I had. So much fun in the Olympic Games. I wish I could do it now.”
Fifty-one years later, the FISU World University Games are back and so are the memories. Lake Placid, he said, “still holds a “big, big place in my heart.”
Photos Courtesy of Jim Miller.