Downhill battle |

Downhill battle

Park City, Utah, is ready to challenge Steamboat Springs as Ski Town U.S.A.

Avi Salzman

— John Fetcher, an 89-year-old engineer and rancher, rattles off the names of towns where he has built or designed ski jumps: Purgatory, Aspen, Alta, Winter Park and Crested Butte.

Some of those jumps, such as the ones at Winter Park, are still in use. Others cling tenuously to hillsides or have all but disappeared after years of non-use and neglect.

Fetcher also helped with the reconstruction of the jumps at Steamboat in 1976, their last major upgrade. He has a special affection for the Howelsen jumps, which he says boast the only natural in-run in the world. But though Howelsen’s jumping heritage was built on a near-perfect mountain and heaps of snow, the future of Steamboat’s ski-jumping program may be built on a substance more artificial: plastic.

By the city’s count, 14 major ski-jumping complexes in North America have built or rebuilt jumps since Steamboat last retooled its ramps. But those complexes in places like Lake Placid, N.Y.; Calgary, Alberta; and Park City, Utah built their jumps with plastic surfaces. In Europe, as well, plastic has become par for the course.

Plastic jumps allow ski jumpers to log hundreds of jumps during summer and fall, what used to be the off-season.

By no means are Steamboat’s jumps, like some of the wooden structures Fetcher built, in danger of fading into obsolescence. Athletes, coaches and officials all say there is something about Steamboat’s tradition, small-town atmosphere and distinctly natural jumps that will always make it special in comparison to other venues.

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However, Steamboat officials are keenly aware that athletes who would normally train here are being lured to the more modern plastic jumps in Park City, just six hours to the west.

The Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club, nordic combined Coach Todd Wilson said, is in danger of becoming a feeder program for clubs with better facilities.

Now, a growing group of city officials, business leaders, community activists, coaches and athletes are focused on making sure Wilson’s fear isn’t realized.

“The jumping world has changed,” said City Council President Kevin Bennett, the head of the Colorado Olympian Project attempting to outfit Howelsen’s jumps with plastic. “We’ve got to change with it.”

$21 million dream

From five miles away on Interstate 80 the ski jumps at the Utah Olympic Park near Park City come into view, their slick green surfaces decorated with the Olympic rings. They are not actually in Park City, but close to the highway about six miles away from the small mountain town. The massive serpentine slopes, including a 64 meter jump, a K90 and a K120, are the crowning glory of an Olympic dream cut into the side of a hill. Those three jumps alone cost the Salt Lake Organizing Committee $21 million. The jumps were completed about one year ago, with the first jumpers taking off the first week in September.

Albert Gasienica, a 27-year-old Park City jumper who emigrated from Poland and has jumped all over the world, has no question of just how good the jumps are.

“They’re the best in the world,” he said.

The plastic surface resembles the bristles of brooms layered over each other. The jumps are constantly lubricated with water sprayed by sprinklers at the edges of the jumps.

When a jumper hits the surface, the initial thud against the bristles sounds almost like a deck of cards being shuffled. Unlike the thump of skis on snow, the plastic offers a little more give, jumpers say. The plastic landing is not as hard as landing on snow. The plastic jumps, as well, are more predictable for jumpers. The conditions do not change one hour to the next as the temperature changes.

“The speeds are much more consistent,” said Ethan Johnson, a 16-year-old nordic combined skier from Steamboat. “You don’t have to wax your skis to conditions.”

The plastic is on top of a synthetic netting, which holds it in place. Under the net is a one-inch foam rubber sheet, which lies on top of a concrete base. In the winter, cables will be extended over the plastic and attached to cargo nets to hold the snow.

The new jumps were built on top of 9-year-old jumps that were funded in part by a statewide bond issue paid off with sales tax revenues, said Craig Lehto, the director of Utah Olympic Park. When the state got the Olympics, the taxes were rebated with Olympic television revenues, Lehto said.

The price tag for the entire facility, complete with a lodge and museum, Olympic bobsled and luge runs, and summer freestyle ski jumping ramps with a pool, is in the vicinity of $100 million, according to Myles Rademan, the public affairs director for Park City.

Beyond the games

Park City has plans for its facility that extend far beyond the 2002 Olympics. Near the K120 and K90 are smaller plastic-covered jumps measuring 20 and 40 meters respectively. Utah youths start on the 20-meter jump when they are 5, progressing slowly up the ladder. Because the small jumps, like the larger ones, are covered in plastic, the young athletes get used to the feel of the synthetic surface as they learn to jump farther.

The Olympics, it seems, are just the beginning of Park City’s quest to become the premier ski-jumping center in North America.

“We used the Olympics as an excuse to create a facility,” said Alan Johnson, the director of ski jumping and nordic combined events for the Salt Lake Organizing Committee.

Johnson’s son, Anders, in fact, is at the head of a class of young Park City ski jumpers beginning to surprise even their own coaches with their success. In a competition in Finland this summer on plastic jumps, the Park City team, called the National Sports Foundation, dominated a Finnish junior team, said Corby Fisher, the program director for nordic combined and special jumping with the Park City club. In an event where Americans are usually encouraged to strive for top-30 finishes against top European competition, the Park City jumpers took first, second and third, Fisher said.

Fisher, who trained with Steamboat’s Winter Sports Club until he was 19 and then coached for the club, said the plastic jumps have given his new club a crucial edge over Steamboat.

“To be able to train year-round is a huge advantage,” Fisher said. “This is what we need to catch up and get ahead (of the rest of the world).”

Heading west

Fisher said the young jumpers are able to get at least 500 more jumps in every year as a result of the plastic surfaces. While athletes who train only on snow can log about 500 jumps a year, the jumpers who train on plastic may log more than 1,000, Fisher said.

But and here’s where the situation begins to really get under the collars of Steamboat locals the Park City club is not only training great jumpers, it’s training great Steamboat jumpers. Steamboat ski jumpers have already begun to filter over to the new complex, with current and future Olympic hopefuls like Clint Jones and Logan Gerber spending the summer in Park City.

“If we had better summer facilities in Steamboat we wouldn’t have to leave,” Jones said. After this summer, Jones, who is 16, said he is almost assured of a spot on the 2002 Olympic team.

Jones said he still wishes he could train at home, where he thinks the jumps are more a part of the community than are the Park City jumps.

“The jumps at Howelsen are definitely more the kind you grow up around,” Jones said.

In the past, the Winter Sports Club has trained many of its athletes to increase their endurance and strength in Steamboat over the summer, occasionally taking them to places like Lake Placid and Calgary to jump on plastic.

“This is the first summer we’ve noticed athletes heading (to Park City),” Wilson said. “Seeing the program fragment a little is discouraging. We don’t know what they’re doing right now. You just don’t get the same level of continuation or bonding when you go somewhere for a couple months and come back.”

Wilson, who said he has been lobbying for plastic jumps for a decade, feels like his jumpers are always playing catch-up after the summer, spending the first two months of the winter just regaining their previous form.

Despite boasting arguably one of the most productive sports clubs in the nation, Steamboat may be left by the side of the road while other clubs pass it by.

“We’ve got a great pit crew,” said ski jumping coach Chris Gilbertson. “We’re just driving a broken-down VW bus.”

Wilson’s biggest fear is not the dissolution of the club, but a change in its role.

“I’m just worried we’ll become a feeder program,” he said.

Where the action is

Rademan, the Park City public affairs director, said his city welcomes the migration of Steamboat athletes.

“If you’re an athlete you want to go where the action is,” he said. “Steamboat should stay where it is. It’s got a great club. I think Steamboat should try to keep up its hill, but they’ll never be able to compete with this… I think Steamboat will be a feeder area.”

Rademan said he thinks Steamboat, because of its close proximity to Park City a six-hour drive along U.S. 40 should be content with sending its best jumpers away when they begin to have realistic Olympic dreams. Attempting to compete with Utah’s facility would cost a lot of money without enough return on the investment, he said.

Other Park City officials, however, have a different view. Lehto, Fisher and Johnson all think getting plastic in Steamboat would be the best thing for the sport.

“If you have competition among athletes from two different facilities, that will make them better,” Lehto said.

Fisher envisions a triumvirate of great North American complexes, shuttling jumpers to compete against each other in Steamboat, Park City and Calgary.

Looking for money

The Colorado Olympian Project was formed earlier this year by City Council President Bennett, who saw a similar project work in his hometown in Minnesota. The group now has about 20 members from both the public and private sectors, ranging from Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. President Chris Diamond to engineers like Fetcher. The group’s first goal is to secure state funding to get experts to Steamboat who could discuss the extent of the project and offer estimates of the cost.

The $50,000 the group wants to begin the project would come from an energy impact grant paid for by severance taxes on things like coal mines. The group has already secured the support of local coal mines and is now seeking the approval of the Department of Local Affairs.

The city also has hired consultants to determine the implications of altering the hill, which recently received historic designations on the local and state levels.

The study was commissioned in conjunction with the Howelsen Hill Master Plan, which attempts to anticipate and guide the future of the hill. The city paid the consultants, Boulder-based Winter and Company, $6,200 to match a $10,000 grant from the State Historical Fund.

“We have to make sure we balance preservation with allowing the historical uses to continue,” said Nore Winter, the president of Winter and Company.

The bigger task, however, will be finding the money for the entire project, which could cost more than $10 million. That money will not be collected locally through a tax measure, Bennett said. He thinks the money could come through a variety of sources, including private donations and state and federal grants.

The Colorado Olympian Project is making a wide pitch for funding, constructing an argument to show not only how the jumps are important locally, but also throughout the state and the country.

The local pitch is relatively self-evident, given the prevalence of local lore about the jumps. From the first jump taken by Carl Howelsen in 1915 off of a rickety wooden structure to the thrilling World Cup victory last winter by local Olympian Todd Lodwick, Steamboat’s love of its jumps and its jumpers is well documented.

The state-wide pitch may be more important and will likely be a little more difficult. State representatives have listened to the group’s pitch, but convincing the legislature to fork over millions may be a tough sell, according to state Rep. Al White, R-Winter Park.

“I don’t see any one sugar daddy stepping to the line and paying for all of it,” White said.

In appealing to the legislature, Bennett argues state pride.

“Colorado is sending about 65 Olympians to the Olympics,” he said. “Utah is sending few if any. In four years, the situation could be reversed.”

Hank Kashiwa, a former Olympic skier and a charismatic television announcer, is trying to galvanize a group of Colorado Olympians behind the cause. Kashiwa has brought Olympians together before, most notably through his Athletes for Character Education program, which is an attempt to get Olympians and other community leaders to become mentors and role models for young people in Colorado.

“Ideally, we’ll have 250 Olympians out there rallying for the cause,” Kashiwa said. “Every time Todd Lodwick pops up on the screen at the Olympics and it says he’s from Steamboat Springs, it registers with people. You can’t buy that kind of marketing.”

The national pitch stresses the importance of keeping a number of world-class facilities up and running in the country, rather than relying on one main facility to produce all of the athletes, a strategy that has failed in other countries, the group claims.

Kashiwa said upgrading the jumps at Howelsen Hill “will impact our ability to place the best athletes on the Olympic team.”

To reach Avi Salzman call 871-4203

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