Since 1924, Pittsburgh has a history of sending top athletes to the Winter Olympics
Since the beginning of the Winter Olympics, western Pennsylvania athletes have skated, bobsled and medaled at the games.
At the first Winter Olympics in 1924, Herb Drury, a player on the former Pittsburgh Yellow Jackets hockey team, held the banner for Team USA during the parade of countries.
Technically, the first time Drury represented the U.S. was in the 1920 summer games in Belgium, where hockey was introduced. Its popularity, in part, prompted the creation of the winter games. That year, Drury and fellow Yellow Jackets players, brothers Larry and Joe McCormick, won silver. They grabbed another silver at the 1924 games.
“He scored 22 goals of the game, came home with the silver medal, went back to playing hockey in Pittsburgh and then eventually retired from hockey and lived out his life in Pittsburgh,” said Anne Madarasz, director of the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum at the Heinz History Center.
Lauryn Williams, a sprinter and bobsled rider from Rochester, Pa., was the first American woman to medal in both the summer and winter Olympics. A graduate of Rochester High School, Madarasz said she competed in the 2004 Athens summer games, where she won a silver medal in the 100-meter dash; and in 2012’s London games, she secured gold in the 4 x 100-meter race.
“Then, she decides because there are a number of athletes who have crossed over, especially men from track to bobsled because they have the speed, they have the explosive power, especially the sprinters, to push the sled,” Madarasz said.
In the 2014 Sochi games, she won another silver in the two-woman bobsleigh.
Robert Morris University graduate Brianne McLaughlin made key saves as a goaltender in the 2010 and 2014 games, helping Team USA take home silver both times.
Fox Chapel native Dan McCoy took home a gold medal for ice sled hockey in the 2014 Paralympics in Sochi. Madarasz said McCoy trained with the Mighty Penguins, a competitive sled hockey group in western Pennsylvania. Volunteers from the Shriner’s Hospital for Children in Erie introduced the sport to the region in 1998. Four years later, player Josh Writ won gold at the Paralympics.
“Dan McCoy was a little boy then,” Madarasz said. “And he said, ‘You know what? I want to do that. I want to make the U.S. National Team someday.”
Since its founding, Madarasz said the Mighty Penguins have become a leading national organization for developing such talent, strengthened by the recent increase in ice rink investments generally. Many winter sports, like hockey, take a commitment of time and money (gear is expensive), and western Pennsylvania has a history of providing and supporting facilities for young players.
“It really takes off with the building of Duquesne Gardens,” Madarasz said. The Gardens were the main sports arena for Pittsburgh in the early 20th century. It was the home of early Pittsburgh hockey and basketball teams and attracted international players, like Herb Drury, to the city.
Through the years, Madarasz said another driving factor in hockey’s popularity locally was what she called the Mario Lemieux effect.
“When Lemieux was drafted in 1984, there was a huge surge of interest in ice hockey,” Madarasz said. “It built a broad fan base, it generated income and you begin to see … the building of facilities and ice rinks. You can’t play hockey if you don’t have a place to play.”