U.S. Ski Jumping Needs a Stephen Colbert

Peter Frenette

Peter Frenette, 17, has been hailed as the future of U.S. Ski Jumping. (AFP)

WHISTLER, British Columbia — Members of the Austrian ski jumping team, who finished third, fourth and fifth in the Olympic Large Hill finals, are so extensively sponsored that they travel to World Cup events in a pimped-out bus that sleeps 12 and cost 500,000 euros. American ski jumpers have no such luxuries. They receive a grand total of zero dollars from the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association or any corporate sponsors, so they must foot the cost of their own travel, pay their coach’s salary, buy their own equipment and wax their skis at competitions.

And therefore, when Peter Frenette — the 17-year-old from Saranac Lake, N.Y., who could be the future of American ski jumping — finished 32nd in the Large Hill on Saturday, his parents were back stateside working their second jobs. Jennie, a choral music teacher, waited tables at the Red Fox Restaurant on Saturday night, and helped run the Empire State Games (where her daughter was ski jumping) during the day. Peter Sr., a computer teacher, did carpentry on Saturday afternoon, but ran home to follow his son’s results online. The Frenettes had been staying with friends near Whistler from Feb. 10-15. They saw Peter compete in the Normal Hill on Feb. 12, but couldn’t take vacation days for the entire Games.

When asked by phone how much it cost per year to support an Olympic ski jumper, Jennie said, “We make do, but I’ve never sat down and tried to figure it out, because honestly, I don’t want to see that number.”

Peter Frenette

Frenette finished 32nd in the Large Hill competition on Saturday in Whistler. (Getty Images)

After his jump on Saturday, Peter provided those numbers. “About 10 thousand in plane tickets alone [this year],” he said. “Then skis are a thousand dollars” — he has just one pair — “and suits are 500 dollars, boots are 300 dollars, and then hotels while we’re over in Europe, and training costs. It adds up quickly. By the end of the year, counting this summer and winter, [it was] almost 30 thousand, or 25 thousand.”

Peter did his part to raise cash by working at a Mountain Mist Ice Cream stand in Saranac Lake, and also sought out grant money as well as received help from former National Semiconductor CEO Charlie Sporck’s family foundation. Project X, an independent fundraising group that was formed to keep U.S. ski jumping alive after the official team was disbanded following the 2006 Olympics, pays the salary of coach Jochen Dannenberg. Having a fully funded team, Frenette says, “would be a lot easier, to just focus on the jumping” — as opposed to now, when he shows up three hours early to wax his skis, and sews up his own suit when alterations are necessary.

Financial issues aside, what Frenette did here in Whistler — finishing just out of the final group while the other American who qualified, 21-year-old Nick Alexander, was 40th — gave hope that by 2014 or 2018, Saranac Lake’s young sensation could actually be a threat in a sport that the U.S. hasn’t medaled in since the first Winter Olympics in 1924. Frenette is just four days away from his 18th birthday, and was a surprise addition to the U.S. team in late January. He had initially planned to be in Whistler only as a volunteer fore-jumper, so the mere experience of competing in this Olympics was magical. But one has to wonder what might happen if the U.S. were to commit money toward the futures of Frenette, Alexander and the U.S. team’s third member in Vancouver, 20-year-old Anders Johnson, in the same way it did to its Nordic Combined team earlier this decade.

The U.S.’ infusion of cash into that program culminated with a silver medal by 29-year-old Johnny Spillane in last week’s Normal Hill event, and fourth- and sixth-place finishes by 29-year-old Todd Lodwick and 33-year-old Bill Demong, respectively. In the most recent issue of SI, Phil Taylor wrote about the Nordic overhaul:

[Former U.S. nordic combined coach Tom Steitz] began as most struggling programs do, by appealing to the governing body for more money. But he also promised that the team would show improvement. If it didn’t, he would not expect the cash flow to continue. He delivered on his promise and so did the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association. Steitz added more support staff, so the athletes, for instance, wouldn’t have to wax their own skis. Today, the USSA spends roughly $1.5 million on Nordic combined, which is more than four times what U.S. teams were given in the dark days, but according to USSA spokesman Tom Kelly, is still “significantly less” than those of some Nordic powerhouses.

Or perhaps U.S. ski jumping could find its own Stephen Colbert — the Comedy Central host who provided financial assistance (and massive exposure) for American speed skaters in advance of the 2010 Games. Anders Johnson’s mother, Chris, said she would welcome any sort of corporate sponsor for relief, given how much her family had mortgaged to support her son and 22-year-old daughter, Alissa, who competes in World Cup events and is waiting for women’s ski jump to be added to the Olympics. “The national debt is going like this,” Chris said, pointing upwards, “and my credit score is going in the other direction.”

Jim Alexander, Nick’s father, estimated that with $150,000-$180,000 in support over each of the next four years, the U.S. could fund a legitimate team with 3-4 top athletes. “It wouldn’t be like the Austrian team with the bus,” he said, “but it would provide some real help.”

No matter what happens with funding, the Frenettes plan to keep plugging away with their eyes on 2014, at which point they hope to be able to take a full two weeks off to watch Peter in Sochi. His aunt and uncle, Charlaine and Ira Apsel from Mount Sinai, N.Y., had flown up to support him for the remainder of the Games, and were texting updates from Whistler Olympic Park back to Saranac Lake, as well as posting pictures and video on their Facebook pages. When Peter finally returns to New York, he’ll catch up on schoolwork so he can graduate in June; he’s applied to colleges, but he wants to put that on hold in order to keep training. “Having good results here makes me want to keep doing this, to try to be the best one day and put U.S. ski jumping on the map,” he said.

Ski jumping is way off the map in the U.S. in 2010. One of the colleges Frenette was accepted to, Elon, called his house in Saranac Lake on Friday — during Large Hill qualifying — with a question. “They wanted to ask Peter if he was going to send in his deposit,” Jennie said. “My husband told them, ‘He’ll have to get back to you. He’s actually jumping at the Olympics right now.’ They said, ‘Really?’”

  • Published On Feb. 21, 2010 by lukewinn

    1. Kate

      Wait a minute. He wants to go to the top in ski jumping, so he’s going to Elon College in NC? Umm…that does not sound like a good plan. I’d like to suggest he re-evaluate, and consider places like U.Utah or Westminster College (also SLC). Westminster alone has 12 winter olympic athletes attending, provides them with a lot of scholarship money, and they are 20 minutes from some of the best snow on earth (as well as the olympic training center). They did a piece on NPR this morning on how Westminster accommodates its winter olympians, and I’m sure U.Utah does too. Look at the number of kids from, or now training in UT who are at these Olympics. Now let’s look at the number training in NC. He needs to rethink this one!

    2. M

      Kate, the article said that he was accepted to Elon, but did not specify whether he is actually going there. He may have also applied to the other colleges you mentioned, and has either not heard back yet or has been denied. Also, he may have applied to Elon and other colleges that “do not sound like a good plan” for various reasons including cost, proximity, environment, and academics.

      Hopefully Frenette and other underfunded Olympians can find the necessary money so they can properly train and represent the united states. Perhaps he should talk to Shuan White and have him sponsor him :-) Imagine an olympian sponsoring an olympian..

    3. Barb Gould

      What would happen if all of the ski resorts in the US charged an extra dollar or so for lift tickets to donate in support of our Olympic ski team? Would that result in enough money to make a difference? Any chance it could happen?

    4. Tom

      Maybe the US ski team should help everyone and not the chosen few EI: White (I’m sure some of his 7.5 would be a big help) Vonn (She has over a million from sponsors) and Miller is doing great this year the team but the US ski team supporting him 4 years ago. What do we have to do when we sent in donations tell whom we want to get it my choice would be to give it to ski jumping and not just alpine guys.

    5. Jane

      Look at the difference the support for the nordic athletes has done. We need to encourage the USSA to support ski jumping. You can’t do a technical sport at an Olympic level without equipment and technicians for waxing, etc. I agree with Tom; when we send our donations, designate that it has to go to support the Nordic skiers and Ski Jumping.

    6. Chris

      WHY???? Why should anyone spend money sponsoring these athletes? I love sports — PLAYING them. I PAY to play. I play hockey, soccer, volleyball, and I run, cycle, and do most anything else that pops up. Why should my money (through increased cost of products) go to paying athletes? We’d all have more money in our pockets if products didn’t cost what they do because of money going to football, baseball ,basketball, NASCAR, multi-billion dollar Olympic venues, etc, etc. The kid in this article thinks it’s a wsie choice to put off college to ski jump? And his parents think it’s a good idea? And they think it’s worthwhile to give up their retirement (you know they’re not putting anything into savings) to pay for it? Again … I love playing sports. They exist for recreation and exercise. They shouldn’t be a way to turn the uneducated into millionaires at the expense of every one of us who goes to work every day. If you want to donate you rmoney directly, feel free. But don’t cry for sponsors to pay, thereby raising costs. Or the governement to pay, thus raising taxes.

    7. Eli

      In response to Kate – Good suggestions all; however, nowhere in this article does it say that he’s going to or even seriously considering Elon College in NC. Rather, it mentions that he was ACCEPTED to this college. We can assume he must have applied to the school which, I agree, is a curious choice, but he has probably applied to and been accepted to many schools. Regardless, discussion of which college he may someday attend is moot, as “he wants to put [college] on hold in order to keep training.” It seems to me that this young man – already an Olympian – is quite aware of what he needs to do to succeed in his sport

    8. ROB

      I’d kick in the extra dollar for ski lift tickets. Who could say no to that?

    9. Eli

      …evidently, Chris could say no to that, and has a compelling reason to do so: there’s no choice for the comsumer in the above proposal. Perhaps if all the ski resorts in the US had their ticket sellers ask “Would you like to donate a dollar…,” as many other businesses do when they partner with charities, they could still raise a considerable amount of money while affording the consumer the choice to decline. Personally, I’d gladly kick in the extra buck (or more) myself, but I can understand why some people wouldn’t.

    10. Molly

      re: Chris
      I think it’s a bit short-sided to assume an athlete isn’t educated. Is that not an awful stereotype to put on a kid who is only 17? Who knows where he’ll be in 10 years! If you love sports so much and appreciate them being in your life then you should be happy that $.02 from your purchase goes to pay for a hockey puck! Don’t take your anger out on a kid who hasn’t received a dime of sponsorwhip money yet. If you were better at the sports that you love and made it to the Olympics, you would take the sponsorship money like everyone else….believe that.

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