How a Sturdy Kid from the Former Soviet Union is Realizing His Destiny in Lake Placid
The forces that shape our lives often seem a complete mystery. We experiment with things, and we make decisions. Often without even knowing we’re making decisions. The fortunate among us are instilled early on with solid personal values, which transforms those forces from happenstance into something more like destiny.
For a young Dmitry Feld, who was born and raised in the former Soviet Union, it was just that sort of destiny that led him to a faraway place where he found true purpose and belonging.
A Turning Point
One critical juncture on his journey came playing soccer in his teens. As a defensive player, Dmitry was continually facing overly aggressive play of larger athletes. “I had big areas to protect, and a lot of big guys were always trying to knock me out,” says Dmitry. “When they put me on the ground, they would step on me with their cleats. I was all black and blue, but my coach loved me because I was a very sturdy kid.”
When the coach refused to let him play midfield instead, Dmitry decided to look for something else, and it was that same day he found himself awe-struck by a photo on the front page of the local newspaper in his home city of Kiev, Ukraine. It was the first national champion luge slider from Ukraine, Yuriy Karakin. “I thought, wow!” says Dmitry. “That looks like something fun to try. So I called the newspaper, and they gave me the coach’s phone number. ‘You can call him,’ they said. The famous Klim Gatker.”
Wasting no time, he gave the coach a call, who, in turn, gave the 17-year-old Dmitry a start in the Soviet luge program. “My Soviet competitive luge career was relatively short. Three to four years,” he says. “But Klim saw how I communicated with my team members and the kids in the sport and gave me the idea of being a coach. I owe it to Klim for planting the coaching seed in me. He pushed me in that direction.” In a fitting twist of circumstances, it would be Dmitry in 1991 who would help Klim emigrate to the U.S., where in 1998 Klim joined the USA Luge coaching staff in Lake Placid.
Nothing to Luge
Though his father served in his country’s military, Dmitry found himself from a young age at odds with the Soviet system. So, in early 1979, after making formal applications to leave Ukraine, Dmitry and his mother made the move to the U.S. Speaking no English, he worked different jobs to make ends meet, but after three years in the U.S., he was yearning to get back once again to what he felt was his true calling and wrote a letter to USA Luge.
The sport had been slow to develop in the U.S. Although the United States competed in every Olympic luge event from 1964 through 1976, it wasn’t until 1979 that the national governing body, USA Luge, was founded. Because the new organization didn’t have the funds for additional staff, Dmitry volunteered, and they brought him on to coach athletes living in New York City and New Jersey.
“We had a national team, and it was pretty solid,” recalls Dmitry. “But it was just getting started. We had no development programs. No money or equipment, and no one was paying any attention to us. I was able to implement what I knew and what Klim taught me, and they were learning really quickly. We were trying to teach what would put them in a real competitive world against Germany and the Soviet Union and others. We were building our own organization, and we had the vision to be the best. I worked with great coaches, and today that love of the sport continues.”
Then in 1984, USA Luge asked Dmitry to move to Lake Placid and work as a development coach. That move allowed him to turn a dream into reality. Since coming to the U.S. he’d wanted to give something big back to the nation that welcomed him and made his new life possible. He’d been doing that as a volunteer, but this opportunity made much more possible. “I wanted us to be the best in the world. For everybody to know who we are and to show we’re not pushovers anymore.” Looking back on his career, he’s done that and a whole lot more. “We’re good,” he says. “We had vision. Men and women who wanted to be the best in the world.”
Dmitry began working with athletes like Gordy Sheer, Mark Grimmette and others who not only made the national team but also went to the Olympics and won medals. “Those early guys stand out,” says Dmitry. “They were the first Americans to win Olympic medals in luge when nobody believed we could.”
Through the decades, Dmitry has seen the American team grow from an international curiosity to a world power in the sport of luge. There were many others he either coached or witnessed rising to uncommon levels of excellence. “People like Erin Hamlin, Camy Myler, and Erin Warren, and many other great athletes.”
The first American luge athlete of any gender to win an Olympic medal in singles luge competition and the first non-European woman to take an Olympic medal in luge, Dmitry singles out Erin Hamlin as a leader. “She had a lot of guts to go to Russia. Her season wasn’t going well, but she won. She’s overcome a lot and is definitely a role model from young people in the sport.”
The Olympic Spirit is Alive in Lake Placid
Never giving up is the hallmark of these and other successful luge athletes. “They have to be really dedicated to our sport,” he says. “I always believe in hard work, discipline, and dedication. The greats have a dream to make the Olympic team, to represent their country, and that drives us. Just think about how many athletes even make the Winter Games. About three hundred people out of a population of 330 million. Representing the U.S. is the biggest honor of an athlete’s life.”
Now, with fully updated venues, among the best facilities in the world, and big international competitions here at home, Dmitry is as excited as ever. “The Ski Jumping World Cup last year with 10,000 Polish fans blew my mind. That’s what this town is all about.”
“We have the Olympic spirit here. You wake up in the morning, and it’s the University Games, World Cup Luge, or Ironman. It’s great for the kids and parents alike. We feed on all these events. That’s what we stand for. Plus we have the great outdoors and beautiful views.”
Giving Back to Others
For Dmitry, a big part of that Olympic spirit will always be giving back. For him that means helping others in the community and beyond. For many years he’s been as dedicated to volunteer service as he is to advancing athletes in the sport of luge.
One of his passions has long been Lake Placid’s Shipman Youth Center. “Thomas Shipman was a local police officer who always wanted to have a youth center. He died before he could make it happen. So we got together, and we build that center. I like that we can come together as a community and do big things together.”
Since his instrumental role in helping build the Shipman Youth Center, Dmitry’s also championed the ongoing fundraising to continue to fund the facility’s operations. “When the BBQ festival comes, we’re going to work long days, but it’s O.K. because it’s for a good cause. We’re raising money for the Shipman Youth Center. As a community based organization, the good people at USA Luge understand what it means to give back. That’s why we do a lot of the logistics for the BBQ festival.”
Knowing him and seeing him in action, one thing becomes crystal clear. The dedication, hard work, and discipline he sees as central to success in luge is something Dmitry is also personally passionate about in service to others. For him, the Olympic and Paralympic values of friendship, respect, excellence, equality, determination, inspiration, and courage are central to living well and contributing to his community and to the world.
The used athletic shoes in one corner of his office are a symbol of those values he holds dear. “My garage is full of used sneakers just like those,” says Dmitry. “The Ukrainian Army needs used sneakers. Not new ones. They’re in the trenches and the mud, defending their country, and they’ll easily trash a pair of shoes. So they want old ones. We’re going to ship a bunch of them soon.”
He’s eager for the day he doesn’t have to worry about sneakers for Ukrainian soldiers or the other efforts he’s led to support freedom in his homeland. Though he’s always focused on the present, he’s urgently anticipating an end to the war for the sake of the people suffering there every day. In the meantime, he’s still accepting donations of used athletic shoes.
During the 2023 FISU World Winter University Games in Lake Placid, the government offered special authorization for teams to travel to represent their country in competition. Ninety Ukrainian athletes and coaches came to Lake Placid and spurred an emotionally stirring standing ovation at the opening ceremonies. “It was great,” Dmitry remembers fondly. “I got to hang out with them, and we invited them for pizza, garlic knots, and ice cream. No one who was there will ever forget this.”
Fact is, Dmitry’s never been one to simply wait and see what the future brings. Rather, he goes to work and does the good things necessary to actively create great futures. The compassion, the hard work, the dedication to excellence, and the real life understanding of what peace in the world could mean for everyone are some of the good things he brings to athletes in training and USA Luge, to Lake Placid and the Olympic Region, and to the world at large each and every day.
It’s no secret the world would be better off with more people like Dmitry Feld. Many athletes and community members who know him well also know how fortunate they are his path in life brought him to Lake Placid.