If you want to know where someone is going, it helps to know where they have been.
Eric Frazier, a member of the U.S. Paralympics Nordic Skiing National Team, grew up in the inner city of Pittsburgh in a small duplex with his mother, younger sister and brother. With his military father absent, Frazier was often left to care for himself.
With no moral compass for guidance, Frazier found himself in and out of trouble and by the age of 15 was placed in an all-boys group home. Eventually, the defiant teenager was released to The Summit Academy's Aftercare Program, which pointed him in the right direction.
“This program saved my life. It changed me,” said Frazier, a hopeful for the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games. “You go to the Academy and you get a meal and the chance to talk to a counselor, which I really benefited from. You also have the opportunity to learn a trade and also a sport. Since I was a wrestler, I picked wrestling. I met a coach there, Frank Wentzel, who helped me beyond words.”
By the time Frazier completed his time at the Academy, he wasn't ready to leave. After being released from the program, Frazier kept going back. With a childhood that was filled with uncertainty, the Academy provided stability.
“He just wanted someone to be proud of him,” Wentzel said. “And I was. He’s finally feeling he’s where he needs to be and wanted to stay, so I gave him a job in the kitchen. When he wasn't scrubbing pots and pans, he was reaching out to other kids in a similar situation.”
Every day the two would train together, and Frazier got better. He was named team captain and eventually placed in the state tournament. Although things were good on the mat, his home life continued to struggle. At 17, he moved out and the Wentzel family took him in.
“I was a black kid, and Frank and his family were white. They brought me in and treated me just like their own kid. I had some of the best Christmases and best memories there. I call her 'Mom', I call him 'Coach', and I call the two little boys my brothers. To this day, when I say 'I’m going home,' I’m going to Coach’s.”
His continued wrestling success earned him a scholarship to Thaddeus Stevens in Lancaster, Pa., but before enrolling in classes, Frazier made up his mind to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps.
But then he talked with Wentzel.
“Although Coach supported whatever decision I made, he told me I wrestled my butt off and needed to consider pursuing an education. I took his advice and went to school for two years. While in school, 9/11 happened and it reintroduced the desire of joining the Marines. Knowing I had Coach’s support, I enlisted.”
At 20, Frazier completed his first tour in Iraq and came home to see his friends and family. A moment supposed to be filled with happiness and joy, turned to anguish and sirens. While visiting his biological father, Frazier suffered multiple gunshot wounds with a .45 caliber handgun.
“My Marine Corp training kicked in. I took off my shirt, tied off all my arteries and slowed my heart rate. I then called an ambulance.”
During recovery, the Wentzel family updated their basement to meet Frazier's needs. They made the bathroom wheelchair accessible, provided a bed and assisted in every way they could. Frazier was getting back to his old self.
The competitive nature within him never left. Frazier constantly looked for ways to challenge himself and found it in a cycling event called Face of America. Within a year of becoming T12 paraplegic, he completed the 175 mile event and wanted more. Next up was the Sea to Shining Sea. Frazier road his hand cycle from San Francisco to Virginia Beach, Va., in 63 days. Frazier was just one of two individuals to complete the 4,100 mile journey.
“The reason I did it was because I was looking for a challenge," he said. "It set me up to say anything was possible.”
His grind and determination was noticed. Three months prior to the Vancouver 2010 Paralympic Winter Games, the U.S. Paralympic Nordic Skiing coaches approached Frazier to ask if he’d like to try and earn a spot on the U.S. Paralympic Team.
“The first time I tried skiing was three months before the Games,” Frazier said. “I ended up missing the team by 3 percent, but I was going up against the top guys in the world who were setting records.”
Although he did not make the team, Frazier went to Vancouver as a spectator. It was his way of preparing for his next opportunity. He wanted to provide himself with the visual motivation of where he could be in four years if he put his mind to it.
“Going to Vancouver set the final hook for me. I've always been the kind of person – no matter what I’m doing – to do it to the best of my ability. And for me, the best of my ability is at 300 percent. I put everything in it I can, and ever since then I've put everything into Nordic skiing.”
Since 2010, Frazier has dedicated himself to making the U.S. Paralympic Team in 2014. Although Nordic skiing is an individual sport, he has surrounded himself with a team he trusts. He hired a physical therapist and a strength and conditioning coach. He invested in top-of-the-line nutrition and found a sponsor, Wilmington Prosthetics and Orthotics, that helped design a state-of-the-art sit ski. He also reached out to MIT graduates to figure out the most effective sitting position.
“I can only go as far as the team I’m surrounded by will take me. I know I need to be pushed, and I need to be educated on various things that I don’t know. My team told me I need to sit in a different position, and now I feel much more comfortable and efficient in this position.”
The volume and intensity of his workouts increased. Now, at 29, he trains six days a week with multiple workout sessions each day. He uses a hopoxico machine, which simulates high altitudes, when he works out and sleeps. A Skierg sits in his garage and helps recreate the double-pull motion of skiing at various levels of incline. Frazier has already noticed a change from his new workout regime.
“I feel stronger and more confident. I also feel more efficient in my motions.”
This growing confidence is what Frazier needs as the 2012-13 season approaches. His first competition will be the International Paralympic Committee Nordic Skiing World Cup in Cable, Wis., later this month.
“This is where my main focus is and where I hope to qualify for the Paralympic team.”
So as for where Frazier is going, he's headed to Wisconsin because he sees himself in Sochi come 2014.