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Howelsen Hill, Colo.

Howelsen Hill, Colo.

Travel
By Natalie Kurylko
posted: 03/11/2003

The parking lot at Howelsen Hill is knee-deep mud on this late-March afternoon. Local nordic fans pick their way across the lot, dodging the deepest puddles. A few yards away, 35 world-class nordic-combined competitors slog their way around a sticky course. Spectators urge the racers on, saving the loudest cheers and clanging of bells for the local boys: Bill DeMong, Todd Lodwick, John Spillane and a handful of others. It's the 2002 Jumping and Nordic Combined Championships, the last big event of the season. As usual, the athletes are giving their all, but there's a special urgency in the air. Spring fever? Hometown heroics? Maybe. Or maybe the town and the skiers are amping it up in honor of Steamboat local Tom Steitz, the coach who turned America's long-suffering nordic program into a credible contender. Tonight, after 14 years and four Olympics, Steitz is stepping down. He says it's to spend more time enjoying Steamboat and his family, but the buzz says otherwise. Now that the Olympics are over, the U.S. Ski Team is moving the nordic program from Howelsen, where it's been since Steitz moved it here in 1991, to Park City, Utah. The transfer makes sense for a number of reasons-U.S. Ski Team headquarters are in Park City, and the plastic on the jumps there allows athletes to jump year round. But the decision doesn't take into account all the hard work and dedication the Steamboat community and coaches have put into the program and the athletes. Locals are incensed.

Howelsen, a grand hometown winter sports complex, is just two blocks off the main drag. It's the training ground for 700 local athletes in alpine and nordic skiing, nordic jumping, freestyle skiing, and snowboarding. It boasts 20-, 30-, 50-, 70-, 90- and 120-meter jumps, 20 kilometers of nordic trails, an FIS-sanctioned slalom hill, a halfpipe and one of only four K-114 jumps in North America. With flags flying and crowds cheering, Howelsen Hill is hard to miss. Still, most visitors to Steamboat Springs never even notice it. Its 440 feet of vertical don't command the attention that nearby Steamboat Mountain Resort's 3,668 feet of vert do.

Howelsen may lack size, but it has stature-and plenty of soul. It is the oldest continuously operating ski area in Colorado, has the oldest Winter Sports Club west of the Mississippi and is listed on the Colorado Register of Historic Places. It boasts 90 years of skiing heritage and has been the training ground for 57 Olympians, including 16 members of the 2002 U.S. Olympic Team. You'll recognize the names: Todd Lodwick, Travis Mayer, Caroline Lalive, Shannon Dunn, Ann Battelle.

Looking up from the base, one wonders exactly how such a little hill has produced more winter Olympians than any other U.S. community. On weekdays, a single poma transports all the hill's skiers. The only consistent pitch is on the hill's frontside Face, where slalom and freestyle skiers train. It's a fun hill to ski, with lots of dips, rolls and a couple of short, steep chutes, but it takes little more than an hour to ski all of its 19 runs. Clearly, it's something other than the terrain that molds Olympians.

It has to do with tradition. And to understand that, one has to look back to Feb. 13, 1914. On Day 2 of Steamboat's first Winter Carnival, Carl Howelsen thrilled nearly 2,000 spectators with a jump of 119 feet. In the weeks that followed, kickers sprouted up around town as kids emulated the Flying Norseman. The following December, Howelsen convinced Winter Carnival organizers to build a new jump. He knew just the place. Brush was cleared, a wood scaffold and takeoff were built and by January 1915, the Big Jump-200 yards long, with a 60-degree pitch-was erected on the present site of the 70-meter jump.

Many longtime locals credit the momentum of those early years for the hill's ongoing success. It sparked a community love affair with winter sports that continues today. The nonprofit Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club (SSWSC) has orgazed and hosted a Winter Carnival every year since 1914. Today, Winter Carnival is one of the many ways that the SSWSC raises the $533,000 necessary to offset what program fees don't cover. Even with a third of the 100 coaches working in exchange for season passes (dona-ted by the Steamboat Mountain Resort), volunteers manning events and a small paid staff doing triple-duty, the SSWSC's annual budget is $1.01 million. And that doesn't include the cost of running and maintaining Howelsen, which is another $700,000. Between pass and snack bar sales, Howelsen takes in about $100,000 per year. The balance is footed by the town through sales tax revenues. That's just fine by locals. In a recent survey, residents were asked to prioritize how to allocate tax dollars. Improvements to Howelsen came in just after open space and rec paths. In the same survey, nordic combined World Cups were rated as Steamboat's most important events. The publicity and revenue those events generate are only two of the reasons. Even more important is the energy they bring to town, feeding the up-and-coming athletes with inspiration. Howelsen is the only city park in the world sanctioned to host such events. The community that wholeheartedly supports it might just be the only community willing to give so much to make Olympic dreams possible on a grass-roots level.

Were it not for the community, Steitz says, the U.S. Olympic nordic program wouldn't be where it is today. "What's special about this place is the support that Howelsen and the Olympians get from the community. Anything I would ask for in this town, I would get. The only question they ask in return is, 'Is that enough?'"

Like Steitz, current SSWSC Executive Director Rick DeVos has lived in Steamboat for more than 20 years. In that time, he's seen lots of changes, but the community's core values have remained constant. "Steamboat is absolutely geared around kids and around preserving the honesty, safety, beautiful environment and all the other things that make raising a family here so great." DeVos should know: Both of his kids are club members and competitors; his wife volunteers as both the masters coach and director of the town league race series. Generations of Steamboat families have participated in, coached and volunteered for the SSWSC. Names like Werner, Wren, Fetcher, Crawford, Romick and Bowes appear on rosters decade after decade. Together, Howelsen Hill and the club have made it possible even for those without means to ski. Its mission has always been to ensure that anyone who wants to participate can. It believes that working toward athletic goals builds self-confidence and personal persistence. The club creates a healthy place for kids to develop lifelong friendships.

The club's staff aims to carry on that tradition. "It's been here for 90 years, and it should last another hundred," DeVos says. "The goal is to set it up as a self-perpetuating machine that can continue preserving Steamboat for what it was."

Although DeVos doesn't come right out and say it, Howelsen Hill is largely to credit for keeping Steamboat real. Preserving it requires the community to pull together year after year. Mudslides and fire have decimated the jumps. In 1993, the lodge collapsed. Each time disaster strikes, the community finds ways to rebuild. Countless people deserve credit for carrying on the Howelsen tradition, but a few stand out.

Local Gordy Wren, lifelong skier, jumper and a 10th Mountain Division ski mountaineering instructor, was Howelsen's manager when John Fetcher moved from Philadelphia to Steamboat in 1949. One of the primary reasons Fetcher, a lifelong skier, chose to ranch in the Yampa Valley was because of Howelsen. Throughout the years, the team of Fetcher and Wren fundraised, designed, built, redesigned and rebuilt the jumps. "John has always been committed to Howelsen through all the ups and downs," Steitz says. "He's been a role model of mine on how to actually get things done when it seems it's against all odds. He's like a pit bull: When he sinks his teeth into something, he doesn't let go until it's done."

Even now, at 91, Fetcher is still actively involved in the Colorado Ski Heritage Project, the current effort to raise $3 million to put plastic on the K-70 jump at Howelsen. In just over a year, the project's organizers have raised more than half their fundraising goal through donations from locals, the state and USSA. Organizers aim to raise the remainder and start construction by this summer. Three million dollars is a lofty amount for a community of 10,000 to raise in less than two years, but if any town can do it, Steamboat can.

But is the plastic too late? Howelsen has been relegated to feeder status. It is no longer hallowed Olympic training ground. This year it hosted a World Cup B event (no nordic World Cups were hosted in the U.S. this season), and it's unlikely that the World Cup A circuit will return to Steamboat in the future.

Stand on the Fifth Street Bridge at 3:30 p.m. on a winter school day and watch. Hundreds of kids, some on buses, others on bikes and skateboards, pour toward the hill. Within minutes, the poma is cranking full tilt, hauling all sizes and types of skiers. Jumpers unload to the right at the first exit, racers and freestylers to the left at the second, and snowboarders and recreational skiers go to the top for access to the halfpipe and the rest of the hill. Parents gather on the second floor of the lodge in Olympian Hall. They chat casually while watching 9-year-olds launch off the 30- and 50-meter jumps. The talk is of work, the snow, travel plans for upcoming competitions. But when Luke Anderson takes the 50 meter, the banter quiets. His crouched 50-pound frame comes barreling down the ramp, he explodes and then launches into the air. He doesn't touch down for 130 feet. Watching him soar, the future is clear: As long as there is Howelsen and the SSWSC, American skiing will be strong. hings done when it seems it's against all odds. He's like a pit bull: When he sinks his teeth into something, he doesn't let go until it's done."

Even now, at 91, Fetcher is still actively involved in the Colorado Ski Heritage Project, the current effort to raise $3 million to put plastic on the K-70 jump at Howelsen. In just over a year, the project's organizers have raised more than half their fundraising goal through donations from locals, the state and USSA. Organizers aim to raise the remainder and start construction by this summer. Three million dollars is a lofty amount for a community of 10,000 to raise in less than two years, but if any town can do it, Steamboat can.

But is the plastic too late? Howelsen has been relegated to feeder status. It is no longer hallowed Olympic training ground. This year it hosted a World Cup B event (no nordic World Cups were hosted in the U.S. this season), and it's unlikely that the World Cup A circuit will return to Steamboat in the future.

Stand on the Fifth Street Bridge at 3:30 p.m. on a winter school day and watch. Hundreds of kids, some on buses, others on bikes and skateboards, pour toward the hill. Within minutes, the poma is cranking full tilt, hauling all sizes and types of skiers. Jumpers unload to the right at the first exit, racers and freestylers to the left at the second, and snowboarders and recreational skiers go to the top for access to the halfpipe and the rest of the hill. Parents gather on the second floor of the lodge in Olympian Hall. They chat casually while watching 9-year-olds launch off the 30- and 50-meter jumps. The talk is of work, the snow, travel plans for upcoming competitions. But when Luke Anderson takes the 50 meter, the banter quiets. His crouched 50-pound frame comes barreling down the ramp, he explodes and then launches into the air. He doesn't touch down for 130 feet. Watching him soar, the future is clear: As long as there is Howelsen and the SSWSC, American skiing will be strong.

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