SARANAC LAKE - As a child growing up here, Peter Frenette sometimes second-guessed his decision to be a ski jumper instead of participating in more traditional sports.
"It was kind of tough when I was younger because none of the kids from my school did it," Frenette said. "That was tough. There were times when I was like, 'Mom, I just want to play hockey or something' because all my friends played hockey. But my mom, she kept me going. I thank her for that."
It was good move by Frenette's mother because he has developed into one of the best, if not the best, ski jumper in the country. And he's just 20 years old.
Peter Frenette of Saranac Lake jumps 108 meters in October 2010 at the Olympic Jumping Complex in Lake Placid to break the venue record.
(Enterprise file photo — Mike Lynch)
In the past three years, Frenette has won four national titles, earned World Cup points and competed in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics at the young age of 17. Now he's trying to take his career to the next level.
This winter, for the first time, he will compete on the World Cup level to start the season. The plan is for him and teammate Anders Johnson to participate in a full season at what is considered the highest level of ski jumping. In the last two years, Frenette had competed in a few World Cup events, but wasn't doing so consistently.
Now Frenette's coaches believe he's up to the task, and so far he's been able to meet their expectations. This summer he had two top-15 performances in World Cup events. In one of those, the FIS Grand Prix in Hinterzarten, Germany, he finished in 12th place. That put him three places ahead of Simon Ammann, the Swiss jumper who dominated the 2010 Winter Olympics in Whistler, British Columbia.
"He's really knocking at the door," said Team USA spokesman Peter Graves. "There's a pretty strong feeling that if you're capable of finishing within the top 20 or top 15, that on a given day you might be able to take it or be on the podium anyway. He's really talented, and I think he's really motivated. He really wants to improve."
A good winter season for Frenette would mean consistently finishing in the top 30 in the World Cup competitions. He also wants to qualify for the 2013 World Championships in Italy.
Frenette knows it's not going to be easy. The competition in Europe, where the ski jumping is more popular, is tough.
"I think in Poland, ski jumping is the number-one sport in the country," said Alan Johnson, athletic director for USA Ski Jumping. "I think a place like Japan, it's number three behind sumo wrestling and baseball. Austria, it's probably, from a TV viewership standpoint, I believe it's ahead of alpine skiing. It's right up there. So it's held pretty dearly in a lot of those countries."
Here in the U.S., as Frenette knows well, the sport flies under the radar. That presents some challenges for athletes like him who need money for travel, training and equipment. It costs roughly $20,000 a year, maybe more, for individuals to compete internationally.
To pay for some of the out-of-pocket expenses, Frenette holds fundraisers, relies on the support of friends and family, and receives backing from sponsors. USA Ski Jumping, an organization that formed after the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics to support the competitive jumpers, also provides assistance.
But USA Ski Jumping itself is struggling to raise enough money to produce a successful program. Earlier this week, the organization announced it would collaborate with Ski Jumping Canada to provide coaches and essential programs to ski jumpers from the two countries. One of the initiatives of the one-year agreement is that the World Cup athletes from both countries would be coached by U.S. coach Clint Jones. The jumpers will essentially be one team, although they will represent their respective countries once competitions start.
"We struggle to make payroll every two weeks at the moment," Johnson said. "We're starting to get our foot in a few doors, and we have a handful of sponsors, but it doesn't give us the amount of money that we need to ultimately be super-successful. I mean, we can be successful, but you are trying to run a program that does World Cup, Continental Cup and junior development on a $250,000 budget. Austria spends more than that on one of their athletes, and they have 33 guys on their team. Some of their guys get 50 to 60 suits to try over the course of a season. We're lucky if our guys have three to four suits to use for the whole season, much less test to see which ones they like or don't like."
That's where young guys like Frenette and Anders Johnson, 23, come into the picture. If these two guys and maybe a few of the others in the program can have success in the coming years, it may bring attention to the sport in the U.S. and potentially draw more sponsors. Essentially, success breeds success.
Frenette is optimistic about the program. After all, it's better than what was in place in the years leading up to the last Olympics, when there was either no supporting organization or a less organized one called Project X. Going into the 2010 Olympics, his parents paid all of his expenses, taking other jobs to supplement their teacher salaraies.
"For the U.S., it's looking good with the new program," Frenette said. "A lot of young kids are interested."
At this point in his career, Frenette said he doesn't expect ski jumping to be popular or for thousands of people to come out to watch him. There are too many other sports that are already popular, diverting interest.
Of course, that could change somewhat in the next two years. With the 2014 Sochi Olympics only one winter away, Olympic sports will get more attention, as they always do when the Games get closer. That means, as Frenette tries to raise his game to the next level, he could help elevate the sport with him. It sounds like a heavy load for a 20-year-old to bear, but perhaps he's well suited for the challenge. He's used to beating the odds. After all, he has made a name for himself by defying gravity.
"I think he has a lot of potential, and I think everyone on the staff realizes what potential he has," Graves said. "We've seen moments of greatness."