What your brain says: "Piece of cake. That's a pool full of water. It's even a pool full of bubbly water. No one ever got hurt landing in a pool full of bubbly water. Besides, they wouldn't let a hack like you do this if it wasn't safe. Look, that little kid just threw a front flip."
What your 42-year-old body says: "No way, dude. That kicker's huge. And that kid weighs 97 pounds and is made of rubber. If this gig is safe, why do they make you wear a helmet?"
Leave it to Lake Placid, land of Winter Olympiads (1932 and 1980) and one of the East's most beautiful ski towns, to slyly push you beyond your personal boundaries. Sure, I'm a darn good skier and have spent much of my life on snow. Yet I'm standing atop the aerials training ramp at the Kodak Sports Park, one of only two such facilities in the country, nervous as hell. I'm staring down the in-run of the smallest jump. It's made of pressure-treated lumber covered with a carpet of plastic bristles. I don't know exactly how steep it is, but it's steep, and it ends with a six-foot kicker that rises so abruptly that it looks from this angle like you might just slam into it.
I'm not a guy who spooks easily, but as it happens, the last time I was this nervous was halfway down the bobsled run not half a mile away from here. That was winter. Today it's the middle of August, late in the afternoon on a soft summer day. Same idea, though. The folks at the Olympic Regional Development Authority figure, hey, we've got all these world-class sports facilities, wouldn't it be hilarious to let untrained tourists try them out? So I've paid my $10, and like anyone else who shows up on what are called Try-It Tuesdays, I get to find out what it's like to be American Olympic aerial gold medalist Eric Bergoust. Minus talent.
So I'm next in line—a line in which I'm also the oldest guy, except maybe for Charlie, who's been dragged here by his teen-aged son. Charlie and I have been sharing nervous asides, trying to reassure each other as we wait our turns. I can't see how ridiculous I look in my flotation vest and helmet, but he can, and vice versa. We're surrounded by carefree teens and pre-teens, none of whom show any fear whatsoever.
I edge myself onto the top of the ramp. Sliding back over to the safety of the stairs is still an option. The battle of mind and body rages in my head, but in the end, as is so often the case, the male ego takes charge. I'm not about to wuss out in front of these punk kids. So I override the self-preservation brain lobe and push off. Hissing down the plastic ramp, relaxed stance, eyes on a point beyond the lip, just like they told me. Into the transition, weight over the balls of my feet, just like they told me. Then—oof!—soaring into the airspace over Lake Placid, N.Y.
Any expectations of a dignified, semicontrolled initial flight are left behind at the moment of liftoff. My arms flail like the wings of a plugged pigeon. My hands scribe desperate circles in the air, windmilling in an attempt to keep my upper body over my skis. There must be some kind of record for the ugliest aerial ever known to man, and even while I'm fighting with every sinew to ensure that the first thing to hit that water is skis, not face, time slows, and there's room in the thought process for deep embarrassment. I'm ashamed of my inelegant contortions, of such hideous writhing in front of all these people, especially all these kids. Then—splash. And not only am I alive, nothing hurts. I'm trying to swim with skis on, but other than that, it's going to be OK. Hell, I'm even ready for another go.
It's the first of seven trips I'll make down that ramp. I expect that with each jump I'll grow more comfortable, better able to conquer my fears, quieter in the air—maybe even try a 360 or a back flip? This turns out not to be the case. Each round is equally difficult and unsightly. And in the end, II'm whipped. Who knew flying through the air could be so exhausting? Nevertheless, it's been a gas. What's more, I can't wait to come back—with some buddies, maybe, or a pack of kids from the ski club. All in all, it's right up there for best 10 bucks I've ever spent. And next time I'll really earn my wings.
FLIGHT SCHOOLS FOR SKIERS
>Lake Placid, N.Y.
Enter the Lake Placid Huck and Tuck (Aug. 25—26), an annual aerials competition that's open to the public. Competitors get a half-day of training and at least two judged jumps (more if you're good). For a schedule of public sessions, contact 800-462-6236 or orda.org. For private sessions, call 518-523-2202.
>Park City, Utah
At Olympic Park, sign up for Intro Camps at the aerials pool. The camps are open to intermediate skiers or better (or experienced athletes with crossover skills), ages 6 and up. Cost: $65 per person.
435-658-2359 or flyfreestyle.com