Senior Sports Columnist
After all these years, after shooting tens of thousands of arrows and winning an Olympic medal, Elma native Jake Kaminski never tires of the rush that comes when he pulls back his bow in a major archery competition.
“Part of the reason I continue to do it is that it makes me feel I’m still alive,” Kaminski said by phone recently from the U.S. archery Olympic training site.
Yes, life is a precious thing. That notion took on a deeper meaning last year when Kaminski’s beloved stepsister, Elizabeth Diamond, died of brain cancer at age 40. Diamond was a single mother, raising her four daughters − ages 5 to 12 − on her own in Orchard Park.
Diamond’s death touched the local community and became a national story when her childhood friend, Laura Ruffino, fulfilled a promise she’d made when Liz fell sick eight months earlier. Laura and her husband, Ric, would adopt the four girls, expanding their OP household from four to eight.
The Ruffinos’ gesture, along with an outpouring of community support, was a great consolation to Diamond’s family, which was understandably rocked by her death.
“It struck us all like lightning,” said Jake’s mother Suzanne Linde, Diamond’s stepmother. “She was a yoga instructor, basically a vegetarian and healthy, a good runner in high school. It took a long time for her body to give up. It was hard to sit with her. It took a week. It was awful.”
No one took it harder than Jake, who was 13 years younger and always looked up to Liz. He would often travel alone to see her when she was living in California. She was proud of his archery and his biggest fan.
Four years ago, when he made his first Olympic archery team, they had a Jake Kaminski Day in Elma. Jake said how happy he was to see his whole family there, and Liz was the eloquent family spokesperson.
She talked about holding Jake when he was a baby and knowing that he was “destined for greatness. And to see him living out his goals is pure joy,” Diamond said that day. “This boy really is golden. His heart is golden. He has strong integrity. He’s filled with purpose. He has a powerful mission.”
Kaminski flew back to Buffalo when Diamond’s condition grew dire in April 2015. By the time he got to the hospital, she wasn’t able to speak. He squeezed her hand and told her he loved her and felt certain that Liz knew he was by her side at the end.
“It was tough,” Kaminski said. “Liz was always a big part of my life. When I was growing up, she was my baby sitter. She was definitely always there for me. Fortunately, her kids are well taken care of. Life’s life and you kind of move on.”
If only moving on were that simple for Kaminski.
While grieving for Liz, he was going through a breakup with his wife, Amanda. They had been newlyweds and sweethearts in London, when Jake won a silver medal in the team event. There was a moving scene afterward, when Amanda slipped into a restricted interview area, where they hugged and cried and Jake told her, “I did this for us!”
So in the spring of 2015, Kaminski had two losses tearing at him, the death of a sister and a young marriage. Not long after Diamond’s death, he failed to qualify for last year’s national team.
It was no wonder. Archery requires extraordinary concentration and precision. Matches can be decided by a millimeter. Jake says your heat beats 180 times a minute. You need to be at your mentally sharpest. A tiny distraction can be your ruination. Never mind dual personal tragedies.
“His sister, that was the biggest distraction,” Suzanne Linde said. “I still don’t think he had proper time to grieve for his sister, because he was so focused on his job. So I think that affected him more than the breakup. But I’m sure it affected him.”
Kaminski, 27, tried to downplay the effect of the personal setbacks. But he admitted the distractions were a factor in his subpar 2015.
“Life happens and everybody has to deal with it,” he said. “Unfortunately, I had a whole lot of stuff happen in a very short amount of time, more than some people deal with in a lifetime.”
Linde and her husband, Bob Kaminski (Diamond was his daughter from a previous marriage), were especially proud of how Jake persevered through tragedy, and how he bounced back from his difficult year.
His father wasn’t surprised, though. “We kind of recognized early in his life at 12 or 14, that he conducted himself as an adult in everything he did,” Bob Kaminski said. “I think it’s part of the discipline that makes him good in his sport.”
Bob builds chassis for race cars and was renowned in Buffalo circles before moving the family to Florida 10 years ago. Linde, a Buffalo native with “huge ties” to the area, commuted back and forth to run her bakery, Pumpernick & Pastry, before closing the business three years ago.
The elder Kaminski now owns a racing business in Florida. Bob said Jake became a skilled fabricator and welder as a young apprentice, while pursuing his passion for archery acquired as a 5-year-old boy in Elma. Jake still races cars in his spare time at Bronson Speedway near his home in Gainesville, Fla.
“I’m going to say at 3 years old he learned to use a tape square and a level,” Bob said. “I taught him there’s only one way to do and that’s the best you can do.
“Before his 18th birthday, he told me, ‘Dad, I got this invite for Olympic training. I said, ‘Sounds good, you’re fired. You’ve got to go and live your dream. You can always come back and work with race cars later in life.”
So Jake worked on his dream. He struggled at first and didn’t make the 2008 Olympic team. But he kept at it and made it in 2012. He raised his level in London, leading the American team to silver and outscoring his more celebrated teammate, Brady Ellison, in the dramatic last two matches
But a year ago, it seemed he might be a one-time Olympian. It wasn’t just the turmoil in his life. American archery, fed by “The Hunger Games” and other exposure in popular culture, has become more popular and competitive in recent years. From 2011-14, there was a 366 percent increase in memberships in USA Archery, nearly 500 percent among youth.
“It’s not necessarily that my performance went down so much, but a lot of other people’s got better,” Kaminski said. “Especially domestically, we had an increase in depth recently that was incredible.”
The measure of a man and athlete is how he bounces back from hard times. Jake got back to business. In his case, archery is business and sport. He’s the rare archer who makes a full-time living at the sport, helped by a variety of small sponsorships and some teaching gigs. He’s a tireless promoter, taking some of his inspiration from the top race car drivers.
He hired a “mind coach,” a woman whose own daughter competes in archery and understands the nuances of the sport. She helped him cope with Diamond’s death and his divorce.
“Archery is 90 percent mental,” Linde said, “and you have to be in the right frame of mind. But he has his game face on now.”
Wasn’t it Liz who said he was a child of destiny, a golden boy filled with purpose and a powerful mission? How could he let her down? Jake wore the old game face in a grueling, three-stage Olympic qualifier that began last September and finished late this past May.
The final round (the Gator Cup) took place in Gainesville, where Jake lives, about 10 miles from his parents. Linde didn’t go. She’s always nervous and worried that she transfers it to Jake. On the decisive Saturday, she cooked for what Jake hoped would be a victory party. Bob decided to go watch at the last minute.
“I felt the earth move,” she said. “I knew it would be all right then. I’m all over the place energetically and my husband is very grounded. He has a great head on his shoulders. That’s where Jake gets his concentration skills, his father, not his mother.”
Kaminski narrowly made it, finishing third and claiming a spot on the Olympic team along with Ellison and 21-year-old Zachary Garrett. He’ll be in Rio de Janeiro, where the three-man U.S. team will look to win the gold medal that eluded them on the final arrow in London.
The archery competition, which begins Aug. 6, should be particularly intense due to the interest in Marcus D’Almeida, an 18-year-old Rio native who has elevated interest in the sport in Brazil.
“We have a very good chance this year,” Kaminski said. “This team we have is the strongest we’ve had by far. It’s going to be quite incredible to see what our abilities are.”
His parents won’t be on hand this time. Jake told them he’d be too worried about them in Rio. There will be no wife at his side. The only family member making the trip is his stepbrother, Matt Diamond.
Of course, Liz will be in his thoughts, whispering that he was meant for great things in this world, but reminding him how precious a thing it is simply to be alive.