Saranac Lake ski jumper Peter Frenette lands on the international scene
by Phil Johnson
Two years ago a young Saranac Lake athlete led a small group of Americans out of obscurity by winning medals on the biggest stage in winter sports, the 2010 Olympic Games at Vancouver. Bill Demong had made his Olympic debut at age 17 and, 12 years later, had an individual gold medal and a team relay medal in Nordic Combined, a blend of cross-country skiing and ski jumping that Americans had never medaled in.
Can the same “up from nowhere” experience happen again?
Peter Frenette, from Saranac Lake, hopes it will. He also competed in his ﬁrst Olympics at 17 and now, at age 20, is a four-time U.S. ski-jumping champion and the leader of a four-man group, including Nick Alexander, Chris Lamb and Anders Johnsons, who hope to bring American men’s ski jumping back to gold medal contention.
The U.S. does have an Olympic medal in ski jumping. It was won by Anders Haugen in the ﬁrst Winter Games, held in 1924 at Chamonix, France. But it was not awarded until 50 years later, when a scoring error was realized that gave Haugen the third-place bronze medal.
The goal now is the 2014 Olympics at Sochi, Russia. Demong and the Adirondacks’ other current medalist, alpine skier Andrew Weibrecht, of Lake Placid, are expected to lead the local contingent, likely to include biathletes Lowell Bailey, of Lake Placid, and Tim Burke, of Paul Smiths; alpine racer Tom Biesemeyer, of Keene; and former luge world champion Erin Hamlin, of Remsen.
Of the group, Frenette is the youngest. But he has been skiing and jumping most of his life.
His dad, Peter Frenette Sr., a long-time ski coach at Saranac Lake High School, had his son on skis at age two. “I was six years old when I made my ﬁrst jump,” the younger Frenette says.
He made his ﬁrst trip to Europe to jump in the eighth grade, and by the 11th grade he was a serious athlete. As a senior, he was competing for the U.S. in the Olympics.
There are two events in ski jumping, one on a 90-meter hill and the other on a 120-meter hill. Aside from courage, they require a helmet, a pair of jumping skis, a legal speed suit (not too billowy), a pair of boots that accommodate a serious forward lean—and years of perfecting technique. Ski jumpers are usually tall and thin but shouldn’t be too light. If jumpers don’t meet weight they are disqualiﬁed.
The sport has a long history in the Adirondacks. The ﬁrst formal facility, a 35-meter jump, was built by the Lake Placid Club in 1921. The inaugural event that February attracted 3,000 spectators. Many jumpers got their start on small hills behind Lake Placid High School and at the Lake Placid Club golf course, but after the 1932 Winter Olympics, a 60-meter slope hosted larger competitions. Jay Rand Sr., of Lake Placid, was the ﬁrst of the top-ranked local jumpers, followed closely by the best known, Art Devlin, who dominated American ski jumping in the late 1940s and 1950s. Jim Page, Jim Shea, Jay Rand Jr., Casey Colby, Matt Terwilliger, Taylor Hoffman and Jeff Volmrich are other Adirondackers who made the U.S. Ski Team. But while they came close—Devlin in particular—none ever won at the Olympic level.
Unlike his predecessors, Frenette gets to work on his training and jumping year-round at Lake Placid’s Olympic Training Center and nearby jumping facilities. But sports now is big business and it is results that bring support.
The U.S. Ski and Snowboard Team, with stars like Bode Miller, Lindsey Vonn and Shaun White, has concentrated its assets on teams and athletes who have produced medals. Ski jumping has not. And now, while still an ofﬁcial part of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association for international events, ski jumping has its own federation, USA Ski Jumping. Like all sports organizations, funding is tight, especially in non-Olympic years.
Frenette receives some coaching and ﬁnancial support. It doesn’t make him wealthy like some international athletes—you can still sometimes spot him serving up barbecue at the Tail o’ the Pup, in Ray Brook—but it does free him to focus mainly on his sport.
Casey Colby, a 1998 Olympian who grew up ski jumping in Lake Placid, was Frenette’s coach from 2007 to 2010. “Peter is a very motivated kid,” Colby says. “He is not intimidated by anyone. Respectful, yes. But not intimidated.”
His performances so far have not escaped notice. “He is a fantastic ﬂyer,” says Colby. “When I talk to foreign coaches, they all ask about Peter. They see so much potential.”
Jay Rand Jr., head of the New York Ski Education Foundation based at Whiteface Mountain, has watched Frenette’s career from the start. He likes what he sees. “Peter is a relaxed, powerful jumper. He rides the air very well,” he says.
In competition, Frenette likes to get to the start about 10 jumpers before his turn. He does his best to empty his mind. “I like to focus on keeping it simple,” he says.
The last fraction of a second at lift is critical. “Once I take off, it is ‘the dark zone,’” says Frenette. “I don’t feel anything. It is all [muscle] memory.” He can tell immediately whether he’s having a good or bad jump.
Last year was a tough one for Frenette. In addition to a lack of snow for training, he had a nagging groin injury and hurt his collarbone while mountain biking. But these setbacks didn’t dull his enthusiasm for competition. He is looking forward to a big winter with the World Championships in Italy in February and a test event at the Olympic facilities in Sochi. Consistency is his goal.
It remains to be seen whether Frenette can replicate in 2014 what Bill Demong did in 2010 in Vancouver. Demong and his teammates were together for more than a decade before they earned Olympic medals. Frenette and his cohorts have been together just a fraction of that.
But the Saranac Lake Olympic connection is close. Frenette’s mom shared an ofﬁce with Helen Demong at Saranac Lake High School and dad Peter was once a rugby teammate of Leo Demong. If there was ever a need for a role model close at hand, it would be hard to beat the hometown hero Frenette has known almost all his life as “Billy.”
More than most, Frenette has a lot of history in his pocket when he competes. At Sochi in 2014 and likely for years to come, he will be carrying on a local sports tradition.
Tags: 2014 Olympics, Bill Demong, Lake Placid, New York Ski Education Foundation, Olympic Training Center, Peter Frenette, ski jumping, Sochi Russia, U.S. Ski and Snowboard Team, USA Ski Jumping, Whiteface Mountain