John F. Russell: Ski jumping perfect fit for summer fun
Steamboat Springs — Forget the sport’s traditional winter roots, forget the snow flying around Slovenian ski jumper Vinko Bogota as he crashed during takeoff in the opening of the Wild World of Sports and forget all your preconceived ideas that the sport of ski jumping belongs only to the winter.
Instead, picture a towering ski jump built on the slopes of some volcanic mountain in a tropical paradise such as Hawaii. At the top, ski jumpers ready to take flight, and at the bottom, thousands of screaming fans wearing Bermuda shorts and outrageous Hawaiian print shirts wave flags from Norway, Germany and Austria.
Welcome to the new world of international ski jumping. Plastic and porcelain will replace snow on the world’s in-runs and out-runs, and ski jumpers will soar into a clear blue sky as fans sip pina coladas and listen to Jimmy Buffett bang out the words of “Cheeseburger in Paradise” over the stadium loudspeakers.
The idea is outrageous? Maybe. But it’s not out of the question.
It’s the subject of dreams for longtime ski jumping and Nordic combined coaches like Todd Wilson, who has spent more than a few late nights in the chilly temperatures at Howelsen Hill this month, working to get the ski jumps ready for the upcoming season.
It can be a thankless job, one requiring countless hours of shoveling in freezing cold temperatures surrounded by the constant hum of the snowmaking guns. But what Wilson has seen unfold during 24 years of opening the jumps at Howelsen has made the idea of competing in some tropical location not only possible, but possibly easier than what ski jumping coaches are currently doing.
“If you look at the resources and effort it takes to get these hills up and ready for the winter, you start to realize how much easier the sport is in the summer,” Wilson said Friday, as he worked to get the HS100 in shape for a possible opening Saturday. “In the summer, we flip a switch, and everything is pretty much ready to go. Sure, we might have to fix a sprinkler head, but it’s a lot easier than it is in the winter, when we have to get the jumps ready and then maintain them all winter.”
True, the plastic-covered jumps that have made ski jumping and Nordic combined year-round sports are expensive, but from Wilson’s perspective, they make a lot of sense. In the winter, the jumps require snowmaking, as well as coaches and volunteers to move and pack the snow. In the summer, coaches take the nets that hold the snow in place off the hill, turn on the sprinkler systems that keep the plastic wet and start sending athletes down the hill for training.
So why not move ski jumping to the summer?
Well, there is the fact that ski jumping is one of the longest-running winter sports, with a history and tradition that stretches back to the likes of guys like Carl Howelsen. Its roots run deep here in the United States, and the sport is still a phenomenon in Europe, where athletes rake in huge salaries and are stars in their own right.
I’m sure more than a few people will cringe as I joke about moving the sport to the summer, but can you imagine the images I could capture photographing ski jumpers in Rio de Janeiro? On the other hand, I would miss the cold bite of the air that can only be found on the jumps at Howelsen Hill in January.
So I’m happy Wilson and the crews at Howelsen Hill continue to work hard in November to prepare the jumps for a true winter sport, and I’m hopeful they were able to take advantage of a window Saturday to get the HS100 open and possibly have the HS75 up and running before Thanksgiving.
There is a sense of excitement among the coaches and athletes at the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club as the winter season approaches. I can’t explain it, but I don’t get the same feeling from the athletes in the summer.
“It’s always a lot of work, but it seems to get easier each year,” Wilson said.
The days of racing Park City to be the first to open are gone due to financial concerns, and since the city of Steamboat Springs doesn’t start making snow until November, the idea of breaking the Oct. 26 mark for earliest opening is also just a pipe dream.
Thankfully, Wilson said he has learned a thing or two after a quarter century of making snow at Howelsen, and he likes to think technology and his experience have fine-tuned the process. These days, it takes fewer people to get the job done thanks to improved snowmaking that creates (when temperatures are cold) more than enough snow in days instead of weeks and winch cats that help complete jobs that formerly required 30 to 40 people.
Who knows? Someday, the World Cup may announce a ski jumping event in Hawaii, and you can bet I’ll be the first person in my boss’s office explaining why we — meaning I — will need to be there to cover it. Until then, I plan to grab my heavy coat, gloves and boots a few times each winter and watch ski jumpers taking flight in the chilly air at Howlsen Hill.
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