December 2012

Leap Year

Saranac Lake ski jumper Peter Frenette lands on the international scene

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.

Related stories from our archive:
“Dare Devlin” (February 2009)
“Double Bill” (February 2002)

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