Young ski jumper sacrifices childhood to chase Olympic dream
LAKE PLACID, N.Y. (AP) -- Mac Bohonnon squints in the bright sunlight, the rugged high peaks of the Adirondack Mountains looming in the distance like so many sentinels. He checks his bindings, flips down his glasses, and pushes off down a steep u-shaped ramp.
Seconds later, he's hurtling 60 feet skyward, his body twisting and turning in flight before his skis slam the surface of a 17-foot-deep pool of water with a huge thud, creating a giant splash that sends waves caroming off and over the sides.
Just another moment in the life of an aspiring Olympian. Since he moved to the Olympic Training Center nearly four years ago at age 13 to hone his skills in freestyle aerials, Bohonnon has lived to jump into that pool when the panorama is green and snow is an afterthought.
"I've always loved to jump," Bohonnon said. "I absolutely love skiing, but jumping is my passion."
As is the thought of competing in the Winter Olympics. Bohonnon was willing to sacrifice the innocence of youth to attain that goal and, unlike Alpine stars Bode Miller and Lindsey Vonn, there are no big sponsors knocking at Bohonnon's door.
"This sport is real small, it doesn't have a lot of publicity," Bohonnon said. "There's not a lot of money in it. You're not a celebrity even if you're a world champion."
So, to try to find extra cash to pay some of the bills - he has to pay travel expenses and competition entry fees - Bohonnon decided to create a website to tell his story.
"I'm not trying to do anything crazy. I'm just trying to kind of start with the basics, get sponsors, get publicity, just baby steps," said Bohonnon, who's had more than 6,000 visitors since his site went up late last year. "I mean, I'm not an Olympic athlete. I'm not a world champion right now, but I'm trying."
Inspiration came from Eric Bergoust, 1998 Olympic gold medalist in men's aerials at Nagano, Japan.
"He did the best job getting publicity for our sport and making a career out of it for himself," Bohonnon said. "Now that he's back in the sport as a coach, he's kind of inspired me and a few others to get our sport some visibility and make it bigger."
Bergoust had an edge - his site went up after his Olympic moment.
"I finally had the credentials to put it up. I was trying to get sponsors and speaking engagements to promote the sport," Bergoust said. "I did well. I think the guys that were ranked did very well. The website was probably a small part of that."
Not much has changed since.
"It's all about having talent and having a great work ethic and pursuing a dream of going to the Olympics, and if he can make some money along the way, that's great," said his mom, Libby. "What Mac knows from those who have gone before him is there's not a lot of money to be made, and it's getting harder and harder - unless you have red, curly hair and your name is Shaun White."
When Bergoust was soaring to Olympic stardom, Bohonnon was a toddler anticipating his third birthday in Madison, Conn. At least at that point. Bohonnon had already been skiing for nearly half his life, one of the perks of growing up in a home where the sport is king. Mom and dad didn't encourage basketball or hockey because they both loved to ski - and there was that family home in Vermont.
Bohonnon, who started in Alpine, joined older brother Cody in trying freestyle together, "had a blast" and was hooked. At a summer camp in Lake Placid four years ago, former U.S. coach Dmitriy Kavunov was recruiting youngsters for a development program and asked Bohonnon if he'd be interested. The youngster jumped at the chance.
"It was a pretty big commitment," Bohonnon said. "Initially, it was definitely tough leaving school, leaving my friends, leaving my family, but I knew that it was something that I absolutely wanted to do. It was an easy decision for me."
Not so easy going it alone without mom and dad, though, at least at the outset. For the past three-plus years, Bohonnon, who fulfills his high school education requirements via an online program, was one of the youngest athletes housed at the Olympic Training Center.
"It was a little different, a little tough for him at first," Libby said. "He had some adjustment issues, certainly being by far the youngest in Lake Placid and all of a sudden going to dinner and all these guys around him are in their 20s and 30s. They could bench-press him like he was a flea. He learned his place, it seemed, pretty quickly, and made a lot of friends."
Like U.S. bobsled push athlete Steve Langton, a member of Steven Holcomb's four-man team that won gold at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games.
"That's really rare to see that type of commitment in a kid that young," the 28-year-old Langton said. "Ever since I've known him, I've seen him grow in his sport and as a human being."
So, too, has Bergoust. After struggling two summers ago, Bohonnon's Olympic goal remains intact. At last year's Freestyle Junior Nationals in Steamboat Springs, Colo., Bohonnon received a perfect score and captured the bronze medal. He also finished fourth at the U.S. Freestyle Ski Championships in Vermont, behind three members of the U.S. ski team, two of them 2010 Winter Olympians, and is ranked fifth in the nation as he prepares for his third World Cup start of the season at Deer Valley.
"I think once he understood what it took and what was expected of him on and off the hill, he responded very well," Bergoust said. "Mac's one of the few who did. Mac really showed that he cared. He's putting in a big effort to make sure the time he invests in this, counts for something."
Making the Sochi Games in 2014 is a long shot right now. That leaves plenty of time to spruce up that site before the Winter Games are staged in South Korea in six years.
"Right now, that (Sochi) is my immediate goal," Mac said. "I don't have full intentions that I'm going to make it, but you never know."
Mom's not counting him out just yet.
"He's one driven, determined kid," she said. "I'm extremely proud, extremely proud moreso that he has, through these teenage years when there's so many distractions and so many things for kids to do and be involved in, that he had the wherewithal to make that decision at 13 that this is what I want to do and to stick with it through some real ups and downs."