STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — On Dec. 10, 2020, Steamboat Springs skier Decker Dean literally took a leap of faith.
He catapulted his ski jumping career to the next level, trying ski flying for the first time. Ski flying is the exact same thing as ski jumping, just bigger. The largest ski jumping hill is a hill size of 140 meters, or an HS140. The ski flying hill that Dean sat on top of in Planica, Slovenia, was an HS240.
“It’s the same sport, same equipment, same everything, but a bigger scale,” said Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club ski jumping coach Karl Denney. “Much, much bigger scale.”
Standing on top of the in-run of the HS240 in Planica, Dean definitely felt the scale. He had never practiced on a hill that large before. In fact, no one can practice on a ski flying hill. Competitions are highly regulated with guides along the side of the landing hill keeping tabs on the wind. While ski jumping can continue with wind, ski flying cannot.
“Training is not an option,” Dean said. “You put the bib on, and you get your first official training jump. I was nervous, but it’s definitely something I’ve looked forward to my entire life. I was really excited but definitely nervous.”
With nerves and adrenaline pumping through his system, Dean took flight. In his training jumps, he jumped 175 and 184 meters, stretching that to 188.5 meters in the qualification jump. It was the farthest Dean had ever soared.
Ski flying is on the men’s ski jumping World Cup circuit, and only the strongest jumpers are selected to compete, since it requires more technical discipline than smaller hills. There is less room for error.
“The bigger the jump, the more the aerodynamic factor of ski jumping takes hold,” Denney said. “On smaller jumps, you can get away with a little less aerodynamic prowess and more power on the takeoff. Bigger and bigger jumps, it’s more about the aerodynamics.”
Ski flying was born in Planica in 1936 when Austrian Josef Bradl became the first man to land a jump over 100 meters. The record came at a time when the International Ski Federation, FIS, deemed hills with a k-point of 70 meters the absolute largest possible. While witnessing Bradl’s jump, it is said that hill engineer Stanko Bloudek exclaimed, “That was no longer ski jumping. That was ski flying!”
In the decades to follow, skiers started jumping farther and farther as new equipment and hill engineering emerged. In 1967, Norwegian Lars Grini was the first to reach 150 feet. In 1994, after the jumping style changed from parallel to v-style in the air, the 200-meter barrier was broken, forever changing the sport.
The 200-meter barrier
In ski flying, 200 meters is the magic number. The barrier was first broken by Toni Nieminen on a new hill in Planica in 1994. While the historic ski flying town held the record for years, Vikersund, Norway, is the current home of the world’s longest ski flying jump at 253.5 meters, set by Austrian Stefan Kraft in 2017.
With one ski flying experience under his belt and his best jump not far from the mark, Dean was determined to hit 200 meters when he returned to Planica in March.
Taking confidence and the little experience he had from December, Dean took off on his training jump. He whizzed by the spot he normally started to lose speed and altitude, leaving his previous personal-best jumps in the dust. He jumped 211 meters — a new record among Steamboat athletes. His second training jump measured 200.5 meters.
Among all SSWSC athletes, Alaskan-born Alan Alborn holds the record with 221.5 meters, but Dean has the longest jump among homegrown skiers.
“I got up to the top that second time, I was confident, and I knew what it was going to be like. I had a good jump and got pretty lucky with the conditions,” Dean said. “I did not expect it on the first jump either. That was awesome.”
Previously, Clint Jones held the Steamboat club record at 200 flat. Now, Dean holds it and intends to improve upon it next year.
“He’s always been a confident competitor,” Denney said. “He’s always gone into competitions knowing that he’s going to fight against the best. I think that’s one of the strongest things it says about him.”
Dean is already looking forward to next year’s ski flying events, of which there are normally one or two a season. The World Championships are always the final event of the season, serving as the cherry on top and a sigh of relief all at once for the athletes who endured a long winter of work.
The American ski flying record was set in 2017 at Vikersund by Kevin Bickner, who jumped 244.5 meters. Dean is hoping to close the gap between him and Bickner’s record next winter.
“I would love to fly over 225 meters,” he said.