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A short, fast path to the Olympics

2006-02-09T00:00:00Z A short, fast path to the OlympicsAMANDA BENSEN
Glens Falls Post-Star
February 09, 2006 12:00 am  • 

abensen@poststar.com

Fred Froehlich always wanted to be an Olympic athlete, but by 1972, he had nearly given up on his dream. He was 31 - already an old man by Olympic standards - and had just missed qualifying in both springboard diving and martial arts several times in the previous decade.

He was channeling his ambition into the corporate world as an account manager for Xerox in Albany, when he got a chance to take another run at his Olympic dream - at breakneck speed.

"I had always felt that if I was physically fit, I could do almost anything, but it's all about opportunity," Froehlich said. "Bobsledding was the opportunity I was looking for."

He studied martial arts in Plattsburgh, and his instructor, Allen Hachigian, was part of a four-man bobsled team training in Lake Placid for the North American championship. When the team needed a replacement for an injured member, Hachigian turned to Froehlich, knowing he was already in good shape from a lifetime of martial arts training.

Froehlich agreed to give it a try.

"I went down the run, and I was hooked," he remembered. "It was one of the most thrilling and dangerous things I had ever done in my life."

He joined the team, which won the North American championship that year, and earned several medals in national, North American, and world competitions over the next few years.

By the time the team qualified for the 1976 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, Froehlich was so enthralled with bobsledding that he quit his job to train full-time.

"I asked my job for time off, and they refused to give it to me," he said. "I decided, I can always get a job in corporate America, but this is a real chance to accomplish something I always wanted to."

The key to winning, he said, comes in the first few seconds of a bobsled run. The more speed the team can gain in its 50-meter dash before heading downhill, the better, but sprinting isn't so easy when you're pushing a 650-pound sled.

The bobsledders built up their strength by weight training two to three times a day in the months before a big race, and doing power exercises like pushing and pulling 18-wheel trucks.

Froehlich bulked up to 230 pounds and took the position of brakeman in the back of the sled.

"They call the brakeman the 'big horse,' because he's the only one who is directly behind the sled during the sprint, pushing the hardest," he explained.

Bobsledding does not typically get a lot of respect in this country, which frustrates Froehlich. In Europe, he notes, bobsledders are treated much like race car drivers, and can become quite wealthy.

"There are very few sports that have this kind of atmosphere and thrill - and that can actually kill you," he said. "All the decisions you make have to be made in hundredths of a second, and by the time you get to the bottom, you're going 80 to 90 miles an hour. That's a lot of speed in a chute that feels no wider than your shoulders."

Although his team didn't win a medal at Innsbruck that year, Froehlich was satisfied.

"I was successful in my quest of representing the United States on a world team and an Olympic team," he said.

When his team failed to qualify for the 1980 Winter Olympics, Froehlich decided it was time to retire.

He still helps out as a track official at the bobsled run in Lake Placid from time to time, and gets together with Hachigian and the rest of his former teammates at least once a year.

Froehlich will turn 65 this year, and said his next goal is to "achieve financial freedom." He does some sales work out of his home office, but devotes most of his time to teaching martial arts and fixing up his antique motorcycle.

The walls of his Glens Falls apartment are decorated with posters, photographs and medals from bobsled races, and he loves to remember that part of his life.

"Do I miss it? Oh, yeah," he reflected. "If you had the opportunity to do the most thrilling thing in your life, wouldn't you miss it, too?"

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