Acclimating with Leah: A season of learning how to cover Winter Sports
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — My experience covering winter sports was like a ski jump: I accelerated downhill until I finally took off and stuck the landing.
Sometimes, my jump was a personal best, and other times, I felt like I hadn’t gone the distance I wanted.
Covering winter sports was something I knew would be different, maybe even refreshing, when I came to Steamboat. The appeal of individual sports is the storytelling involved. Kids can’t just tell me, “It was all about my team,” in an interview at a Nordic combined event.
I remember sitting in what is now Big Iron Coffee Shop last summer and reading all of former Steamboat Pilot & Today Sports Editor Joel Reichenberger’s stories, trying to somewhat familiarize myself with the long list of Olympians in Steamboat Springs, but there’s no way to cover them all until you’re in it.
An assignment I had during my first week of work was to cover the July 4th Ski Jumping Extravaganza. I didn’t know what to expect. Did they cover the ski jumps in snow when it was 80 degrees outside? How is that possible? Wouldn’t people break their bones jumping on grass?
That was the first time I met Olympians Billy Demong and Taylor Fletcher. We talked casually about the sport, and they didn’t mind if I picked their brains to educate my ignorance. I spent the event following Joel around Howelsen Hill trying to get the perfect picture of a ski jumper and eventually, wrote my first story on the spectacle of summer ski jumping.
The first actual winter event I covered was more of a struggle.
A storm blew in for the Steamboat Winter Sports Club’s Winter Start Nordic combined event, and the wind was too hazardous for jumping, so they flipped it, starting with the cross country ski race.
I trudged through snow up to my knees until I found the hard surface of the track. When I took my camera out to take pictures of the skiers rounding their first lap, the camera battery was dead. At the time, I was also wearing a boot on my right leg since I had sprained my foot in a pathetic showing at the Turkey Trot 10K in Texas, so even getting to the track was a challenge.
The frigid temperatures made it difficult to even take pictures or videos with my phone and my hands glove-less. I was embarrassed to even ask if I could cross the course to get back to my car. The race was nearing its end, and I hadn’t even met the subject of my story yet.
I took a quick video, then interviewed Bennett Gamber, a local SSWSC Nordic combined athlete.
Later that day came that metaphorical lift off the ski jump. They postponed ski jumping until the next day. In other words, God saw my struggle, and I had another day to get a photo.
The Winter Start was a good training round for the Continental Cup, which came weeks later complete with temperatures below 10 degrees. I had two camera batteries, both fully charged and kept in a backpack in anticipation of doom.
Feeling overconfident and ambitious, I decided to hike up Howelsen for a different vantage point for photos, standing right under where the skiers took flight. First off, I thought I was in shape, and even with the magic carpet’s help, I still had a small portion of hiking to go. And hiking up snow in boots that don’t grip well absolutely drained me. After taking 50 disastrous photos, I gave up and decided to walk down. I walked slowly down the steep, snowy hill and watched as the Nordic coaches effortlessly skied down in just their ski boots like elegant figure skaters.
That night, I returned to take pictures at the cross country race thinking this would be the time for my big shot.
Turns out, when you’re trying to take pictures under a lit track at night in the cold, the camera has a hard time focusing. I probably took 500 photos that night and had maybe four or five in focus.
But after the two Nordic combined events, I had a handle on things.
Camera batteries, check. Skis and boots ready in my car, check. Ikon pass, check. Notebook and pen in ski jacket, check. Extra gloves and pants, check.
A sense of adventure and expecting the unexpected, even if it’s disastrous, check.
By the end of the season, I was effortlessly skiing down Voodoo at Steamboat Resort with a camera backpack on my back and taking pictures of mogul or Alpine skiers.
My only drawback was my lack of familiarity with the lingo, so when I asked Kenzie Radway or Landon Wendler what a cork seven was, they probably thought it was strange I didn’t know. And yet, they were cordial, smiling as they translated.
I was at a recent event when someone came up to me bragging about how he had covered Red Gerard, an Olympic gold medalist slopestyle snowboarder.
I’ve covered the Olympians of the future and talked with Olympians of the past. I wrote about Arielle Gold’s disappointing X Games performance and her dreams of getting into veterinary school. I scrolled through Taylor Gold’s instagram to find out he had some obscure stem cell treatment on his knee that enabled him to compete again, and he shared his story with me.
I talked to Jaelin Kauf and Mick Dierdorff about their World Championship performances and Jasper Good about his first trip to the World Championship.
I wrote a story about Robby Burns, an Alpine snowboarder who works a night time security job to pay for his training for the next Olympic team.
There’s a chance that my story on Radway is something people will read when she makes the Olympic team someday, or she’ll remember talking through her tears to me the day she found out she tore her ACL. When women’s Nordic combined becomes an Olympic sport, I’ll be able to tell people I covered the first-ever women’s Continental Cup on American soil.
As I look at the body of work I’ve collected from this past winter, I see memories that are unlike any others.
Thank you for bearing with my Texan self, polar athletes.
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