June 2017 - ATHLETE PROFILE
Athlete and Advocate for the Outdoors
By John Slyer
- Age: 79
- Family: Wife/Mother/Grandmother: Rita; Children: David, Igor and Tara; Grandchildren: Ruby, Afton, Dana, Zola and Silver
- Residence: Loudonville
- Primary Sports: Swimming, Walking, Cycling
- Secondary Sports: Hiking, Canoeing, Kayaking, Sailboarding, Sailing, River and Lake Ice Skating, Alpine and Nordic Skiing
- Volunteer Work and Occupations: NYS Trails Council, NYS Highway Safety Plan, Capital District Transportation Committee’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory, New York Bicycling Coalition Board Member Emeritus, retired US Navy Engineer, professional Geologist and Geophysicist, retired NYS Parks Deputy Commissioner for Planning and Development and retired consultant, lifetime member of National Ski Patrol, NY/NJ Trail Conference, Appalachian Trail Conservancy
Ivan Vamos was born in Budapest, Hungary in 1938 and draws his inspiration for life from his mother, who saved them both from the Holocaust. “Every day I do my best to live life well and never give up,” Ivan says. As a five-year-old boy, Ivan recalls hiking and swimming in rivers and lakes as part of life, and was always comfortable in the water. Ivan’s bicycle was his prized possession, giving him freedom and fun! Unfortunately, during World War II the Nazis took away bicycles and closed parks and pools to Jews and Roma (Gipsies). “We had no choice but to go into the hills of Budapest to swim and hike,” recalls Ivan.
While hiding during the war, Ivan and his mother often walked looking for berries, edible greens and mushrooms. During Nazi occupation, they “camped out” (hid) indoors in burned-out buildings. “Between the ages of five and seven I had very little activity because we were hiding. I was lucky to be able to find refuge on a Hungarian farm with other children when I was nine, where I was able to do some outdoor activities. We swam in a completely wild part of the Tisza River,” he remembers. His appreciation for the outdoors and for being able to have access to open spaces was forged in those years of hiding.
After arriving in the US in late fall 1947, Ivan reacquired a bicycle and began riding on the streets of Brooklyn. He was introduced to the great outdoors again when he was awarded a campership by the First Street Settlement House Camp at Harriman State Park. The camp program got him out of the Bowery of New York City and gave him a real appreciation for the outdoors. “It was tough living but I loved it. We hiked challenging distances, camped out, canoed, and swam in lakes and streams. We were served US surplus food and I even learned a bit about boxing. I generally avoided ball sports but I was one of the best swimmers. I was even invited to represent the best of the campers at public promotional events.”
Today Ivan walks, swims, and stretches every day with his wife of 53 years, Rita, originally from the Netherlands. “We swim in the lake all summer and go to the Ciccotti Recreation Center pool all year,” he says. Ivan still commutes to local meetings on his bicycle, even after being hit by a car in Albany 16 years ago. Ivan and Rita raised three active children, exposing them to swimming, watersports, hiking, and being outdoors together. Now they enjoy their grandchildren and share their love for an active lifestyle with them.
Ivan offers this advice, “If you stop being active you won’t be able to get out and enjoy the outdoors; you’ve got to keep moving. Every season has something great to do here in the Northeast. It’s important to do things as family, and to get kids involved, so they are exposed and learn to like the outdoors. The most exciting things about sport are the days when the snow is just right under your skis; snorkeling through a school of fish; going through a set of rapids in a kayak or canoe; when the ice is smooth and clear and you can see the fish and turtles swimming below your ice skates. Once in a while, you feel superb when doing a sport!”
With all of this adventure, Ivan is also an advocate for safety and preparedness in his activities. He always has self-rescue equipment while on lake and river ice. He is a “lifetime” member of the National Ski Patrol with 35 years of active patrolling at Brodie and Gore mountains. Ivan also speaks to groups about bicycle safety showing off the helmet that saved his life.
A favorite summer sport is open water swimming at their family camp on Babcock Lake in Rensselaer County, where they swim laps of the length of the lake. Ivan and Rita are the founders and organizers of the annual “Babcock Lake Swim for the Saucer” open water swim. The grassroots event began in 1971, and the awards are Ivan’s son David’s custom-made prizes; cartoons drawn on paper plates for the fun categories and age-group winners. “The first ‘race’ had five participants: Rita, a few friends, and the neighbor’s dog. Now we regularly get up to 50 people of all ages and abilities, it’s now an annual Babcock Lake community event,” says Ivan.
When asked what his biggest sports accomplishment, Ivan cites getting the Appalachian Trail rerouted into the Hudson Highlands. “It took a great deal of persuasion to get funds, the many government agencies and land owners all on board, and deal with liability and access, but now it is open to the public and an asset to everyone!”
Ivan’s passion for the outdoors has been expressed in his career, as well as his community contributions advocating for creating and improving public access. He has been credited for creating numerous bike and pedestrian trails, including the first plans and implementation for the 500 miles of NYS Canal Recreationway, 300 miles of rail trails, and helping initiate the Hudson River Greenway Water Trail. Ivan has also been instrumental in establishing pedestrian walkways and bicycle lanes on bridges and roadways across the state, and served as the Chair of New York Rivers United, advocating for improved river access. While serving as the NYS Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation’s Deputy Commissioner for Planning and Development, Ivan was responsible for land and resources management, construction, land acquisition, and environmental programs for more than two decades until his retirement in 1993. He helped develop over 200 miles of rail trails. Helping create facilities and spaces that are protected for visitors and public access has been very rewarding for Ivan.
A bike commuter since 1965, Ivan worked more than 30 years for NYS Dept. of Transportation, Dept. of Environmental Conservation, and State Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. Ivan continues to serve through representing vulnerable bicyclists and pedestrians by supporting the New York Bicycling Coalition. Ivan specifically works for inclusion of bike and pedestrian elements on major bridge replacement projects, by representing on-road bicycling on the NYS’s Trails Council, and by helping with specific public policy issues.
The Vamos Fund for Bicycling Development Grant has been established with a mission to help provide bicycling opportunities to serve immigrants and other disadvantaged residents in the state with the same cycling opportunity that Ivan enjoyed in Brooklyn upon his arrival in 1947, but never got to have as a young boy in Hungary. Making bikes accessible to those in need allows them to affordably commute and experience the freedom, mobility, and fun of cycling. One of Ivan’s objectives is to teach bicycle safety to children and women who have not been allowed to ride in their home country.
The Vamos Fund grants, partially funded by reparations Ivan received from Germany as a Holocaust survivor, will support bike recovery programs, and provide bikes, helmets, and training to those in need. On September 15, 2017, the Vamos Fund for Bicycling Development celebration will be held at the inaugural New York Bike Summit at the Hearst Media Center in Colonie.
Ivan’s motto is to “Do useful things for self and others” and it reflects the values that he shows through his advocacy for the use of public spaces for recreation, greater health and activity for everyone. Ivan believes that everyone should get outside and try activities in every season. He recommends that if you are not sure how to get started in an activity, join one of the many clubs and organizations that lead trips for beginners in hiking, cycling, paddling, skiing, camping and other outings.
Now at age 79, Ivan wants to keep going outside, and believes that enjoying being active with family and friends is vital to staying healthy. He and Rita continue to get outside every day for walks and swims. “Doing things as a couple and with friends is important. If you stop being active together, then you won’t be able to do it.” Ivan and his family lead true multisport lives that bring them the reward of healthy living.
John Slyer (email@example.com) of Averill Park is a USAT certified coach for adults, youth and juniors, and has coached new triathletes right up through Ironman finishers. He is a 12-time Ironman Lake Placid finisher, marathon runner, and all-around endurance athlete.