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Olympian Tasks

AFSCME members help young athletes ski and skate their way toward Olympic greatness.


Athletes come from all over the world to train and compete in this snow country. Skiers can whiz down the perfectly packed trails of Whiteface Mountain in the historic tracks of Olympic greats.

The man behind those white trails is the aptly named Michael Snow. A member of Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA)/AFSCME Local 1000, Snow has worked on the trails of Whiteface Mountain since 1979 and has supervised snowmaking operations for 11 years. When the Winter Olympics came to Lake Placid in 1980, the athletes raced on Snow’s snow.

From the first week of November to the last week of February, and sometimes beyond, he and his staff work around the clock in weather that often goes to 25 degrees below zero. With wind chill, it can get down to 75 below.

The cold is Snow’s least favorite thing about the job. But he says it’s worth it to see "the trails covered and the skiers enjoying themselves because they’re happy with the conditions." He says the facility’s goal each year is to have all the trails covered by Christmas. After that, most of the work is maintenance — covering ice that has appeared during rain or thaws, and building up the depth of the snow. By the end of the season, the packed snow can measure as high as 15 feet.

FIELD OF SNOW. The process begins with a network of pipes that carries the water up the mountain from the AuSable River. Those pipes lead to some 50 tower-mounted guns — snow cannons permanently set into the side of the mountain — and 100 portable guns, which Snow and his staff move from trail to trail as needed. These guns shoot a fine mist of water into the air — and that mist comes down as snow. In good conditions, the guns can turn 3,000 gallons of water per minute into snow — or, to put it another way, three guns could cover a football field with a foot of snow in about an hour.

The job can be dangerous. Half of the work is done at night, the trails are steep and the guns are powerful. In spite of safety training and the pairing of new and experienced personnel, Snow says they usually have a broken leg or two every winter from people sliding down a slope into the woods.

How often does he get to enjoy the fruits of his labor? Snow says he skis only occasionally. After 12 hours on the mountain, "I like to relax on my days off, do home repair and enjoy my kids." But he will be taking his 4-year-old son out to the slopes this winter to try the sport for the first time.

Who knows? With a name like Snow and a dad in the ski business, maybe some day he’ll be on the slopes as an Olympian.

SMOOTH OPERATOR. Jim Kuhn also is doing his part to build future Olympic athletes. A member of AFSCME Local 1094 (Council 25), Kuhn is responsible for maintaining the physical education building at Northern Michigan University (NMU), home to the U.S. Olympic Education Center.

On this campus on the state’s Upper Peninsula, Olympic hopefuls can train without giving up their education, spending several hours a day on the ice, and several more in the classroom.

Olympic gold medalist Cathy Turner is just one NMU graduate who can thank Kuhn for smoothing out the rough spots in her training: In addition to his other responsibilities, Kuhn operates the ice rink’s Zamboni®.

A Zamboni® is not an Italian pastry but the indispensable vehicle that turns ice rinks from pitted and potholed to Olympic perfection. The Zamboni® works this transformation by shaving the top layer off the ice with a long sharp blade at the back of the machine, then flooding the exposed ice with clean, hot water. The water is then spread even by a rag the same length as the blade.

"If it’s really rough, you have to go over it a few times," says Kuhn. "You can get the ice as smooth as glass."

Usually, he or one of the other drivers grooms the ice for 10 minutes every 40 or 50 minutes, but during an event they may be out there almost constantly. Though the facility is open to the public, the rink also attracts world-class competitions, like the 1997 World Junior Short-Track Speedskating Championships.

Kuhn enjoys his work and his sports. In fact, he likes skating so much that one year, he spent Christmas Eve building and smoothing a rink — in his own backyard.

"I had given my kids skates for Christmas," he says, "and I wanted them to be able to skate on Christmas Day."

By Alison S. Lebwohl

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