The Sochi Network

50 to watch: Soldier Frenzel fights on the slopes

In the run up to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, Reuters is highlighting the athletes to watch during the Games.

+++

Very few athletes in need of a ride home from an international competition can call on their Air Force for help.

German two-time Nordic Combined world champion Eric Frenzel, however, is a member of the armed forces. So when the event in northern Finland ended last November, he and his teammates flew straight home on a military transport plane.

"It was nice for us," Frenzel, also the current World Cup champion, told Reuters with characteristic understatement.

The mild-mannered 25-year-old is one of the favorites to win Olympic gold in the Nordic Combined event, a niche sport which features both ski jumping and cross country skiing.

Nordic Combined athletes have to find a balance between being light enough to glide through the air and strong enough to cope with the cross country course.

Frenzel, who is 5 feet 7 inches (176 centimetres) tall and weighs 137 pounds (62 kg), puts his success down to consistency in both disciplines.

"I'm really a good cross-country skier and on the hill I'm a good jumper. I wouldn't say ski jumping is easier but I like it a little bit more," he said.

Jumping was clearly once his strong point. When he won the 2011 normal hill and the 2013 large hill world championship titles, he posted the longest leap on both occasions before finishing 19th and 14th respectively in the cross country.

Last summer Frenzel did extra training to improve his cross country stamina and led the rankings this season on Dec 30.

"Eric really grinds down his opponents and forces them to make more and more mistakes," German coach Hermann Weinbuch told reporters after Frenzel won a World Cup event last month thanks to a strong cross-country performance.

Frenzel, who only managed a bronze in the team event at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, came second in a World Cup individual event in Sochi last February and says he likes the Russian cross-country course.

"The track had many curves and so I think it's a hard track and I like hard tracks because not everyone can go at such a high tempo," he told Reuters.

One of Frenzel's advantages is that chief coach Weinbuch and assistant coach Ronny Ackermann are both German former Nordic Combined athletes with a total of seven world championship individual and combined titles between them.

So whatever might happen to Frenzel, both men have seen it many times before.

"He has found his centre. He is ambitious but not dogged, cool but not arrogant. And at the crucial moment he has the calmness he needs," Weinbuch told German broadcaster ZDF last month.

Another benefit is that while Frenzel is a member of the German armed forces, he escapes regular duty.

All Germans are required to do either military or police service after leaving school and by the time Frenzel decided to join the army, he was already a serious athlete. The armed forces made him a Sportssoldat - a "sports soldier" - and now give him financial support.

He is unlikely to be waging war for real any time soon, since he is excused regular duty.

"It's not like being a real soldier. We shoot guns a little bit ... and it's not too hard for us," laughed Frenzel.

Such success seemed a long way off when he started jumping at the age of six, under his father's guidance.

"In my home town we have good little hills for kids to start with so that was the reason. I saw all the guys jumping on the hill," he said.

"In the first years I was a little guy ... so I didn't have so much success," he added. Shortly after turning 18 he took part in the 2007 world championships in Japan, which he marks as the turning point of his career.

Fellow German athlete Fabian Riessle says Frenzel has not allowed success to turn him into a snob.

"He is pleasant, friendly and chats to you and you never get the impression that he thinks he is something special," he told a Swiss interviewer.

Frenzel is active on Twitter and Facebook but when not competing he tries to spend as much time as he can with his girlfriend and their seven-year-old son Philipp.

"He also likes skiing. He has started jumping. I like it because he is really happy that he can do the same thing I do so," he told Reuters.