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Air Time

Private Lessons
posted: 02/04/2002

Little kids, big jumps, and podium dreams in Steamboat Springs.

When it's bedtime at the Fletcher house in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, brothers Brian, 15, and Taylor, 10, head upstairs like any other kids their age. But instead of walking the half dozen steps from the doorway to their beds, the two of them launch, Superman-style, landing chest-first on their mattresses, hands held firmly behind them. Their feet never touch the floor.

"It'll drive you crazy," says their mother, Penny. "Off the stairs, over garbage cans, down the aisle at the supermarket. Wherever. They're always jumping."

The Fletcher brothers are two of the roughly 50 kids involved in the jumping program of the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club (SSWSC), an organization that has produced more Winter Olympians than any other in America. Of the 52 Olympians who have called Steamboat home, 29 have been jumpers. There will be five spots on the U.S. Men's Olympic Jump Team next month, and the smart money is on at least three of them going to SSWSC veterans. (There are girls in the program, too, but in the Olympics, jumping and Nordic combined are open only to men.)

Every winter morning in Steamboat, as rusty Subarus and nail-pounder pickups ease their way to work down Lincoln Avenue, jumpers can be seen flying through the mist at Howelsen Hill Ski Area. They are brave, they are talented, and they are young -- many not yet in their teens.

It was at Howelsen in March of 2000 that local hero Clint Jones became the youngest national ski champion in U.S. history, at 15. At the top of the 112-meter jump that day sat a group of kids, some weighing less than 100 pounds. They clicked into skis almost twice their height and launched 60 miles per hour off the lip at the bottom of the ramp, flying roughly the length of a football field before touching down. One slight miscalculation in the air, and the wind could whip the jumpers' skis downward, sending them into a high-speed, airborne somersault from hell. How dangerous is the sport of ski jumping? "Well," Jones says, "people die."

On the top floor of the observation tower, a handful of jumper moms stood staring out over the landing zone. One of them whispers, "C'mon Clint," through hands held prayerlike in front of her mouth. When you see the jumpers from below, it's difficult to get a sense of just how far they're flying. And watching from above offers a gut-wrenching view of the takeoff, but you can't see the skiers after they drop over the berm. It's from the tower -- eye level with that seemingly impossible trajectory and that incredible forward lean that lasts until the absolute final second before landing -- that you see what these kids are really made of.

Many jumpers will tell you that it's just after takeoff, with their body leaning forward against every ounce of intuition, that they feel most alive. Chris Gilbertson, a Steamboat coach with an impressive résumé of his own, describes one such moment while competing in the legendary Holmenkollen in Oslo, Norway, when he was 19. "It was a real foggy day and you couldn't see the takeoff from the start," Gilbertson says. "When I came over the knoll and blasted through the fog, I saw 80,000 people below me. It was unreal."

The Steamboat jumping scene began in 1913, when Norwegian Carl Howelsen imported it almost 20 years before slalom or downhill came to town. Prior to arriving in the 'Boat, Howelsen was gainfully employed in what may be the greatest ski bum job of all time: ski jumper for Barnum and Bailey Circus. The job requirements included climbing a 90-foot scaffold and rocketing out over two elephants and across a 45-foot gap. (And modern freeskiers think gap jumps are so new school.)

"The heritage of skiing is so great here that it can put a lot of pressure on the kids," says Brendan Doran, a Steamboat Olympic veteran. "But that's what makes the club what it is -- it's hard not to have confidence in yourself bbecause so much of the community does. And confidence, in this sport, is priceless." But not free. "Don't ask me about the economics of it," says Peter Doran, Brendan's father. "It's not like going to a ski race in Summit County. When these kids have a competition, they end up needing a plane ticket to Finland." The even higher cost: total dedication. To be Olympic material, jumpers have to give themselves up entirely to the sport. "How do you dedicate a six-year-old to year-round training?" says two-time Olympian Todd Wilson, head coach of the jumping program. "You can't. We know because we've done it. We've pushed kids too far and they've dropped out, and it's tough for coaches and parents to know what the limit is."

Now 16, Clint Jones is still the youngest of nine current Steamboat jumpers on the U.S. Ski Team. Jones says Steamboat has had a huge impact on him. "We jump earlier and later and at a higher elevation than anywhere else in the world. Plus we get to live in a real ski town." But while he may make it onto an Olympic podium someday, that day, for Jones, is more likely to be in 2006 than 2002. "I'm definitely looking down the road," he says.

For the upcoming Olympic Games in Park City, Alaskan Alan "Airborne" Alborn, another SSWSC veteran, will likely be the U.S. Team's best jumper. And though a top-10 finish would be considered a strong showing, many on the team say anything is possible. "Things are actually going much better then we'd planned," says Alborn, who finished third in September at a World Cup-level competition in Japan. "This summer we got the Park City hill way dialed in, and I've had better strength training than ever."

The other chance for a U.S. medal from the jumping set may come in Nordic combined, which combines a cross-country race with ski jumping results. Olympic hopeful Todd Lodwick is a Steamboat native who's been involved with the SSWSC since he was seven. It was on his home hill at the beginning of the 1995-96 season that he did something no American had done in 11 years -- win a Nordic combined World Cup event. He went on to win three more, including the infamous Holmenkollen. Salt Lake will be his third Olympic Games, and he credits his success in large part to SSWSC.

"The club allowed me to race, do bumps, go freeskiing, whatever," he says. "It provided strong training, but it also gave me the freedom to check out a bunch of different disciplines." Looking back, Lodwick can pinpoint the seminal moment of his jumping career. "I was six or seven, and we were over at the base of Howelsen for an Easter egg hunt," he says. "I saw some people going off the jumps there and decided right away that that's what I wanted to do."

Only one individual Olympic jump medal has ever been won by an American -- and that was at Chamonix in 1924, when Anders Haugen took bronze. U.S. Olympic jumpers haven't placed in the top 10 since 1984 in Sarajevo. To win in Park City, Lodwick and Alborn will need to fly farther than the jumpers from the strongest teams -- Finland, Germany, and Japan.

But even these great jumpers, the mighty Norwegians and Germans, who start even younger than the U.S. kids, have to travel all the way to America, flying past Steamboat Springs and contending with jet lag and high altitude, in order to attain victory next month. The home-hill advantage, and a little luck, could help the U.S. bring home a medal in February. And in 2006 or 2010, maybe it'll be Taylor Fletcher. Either way, no town in America would be happier than Steamboat Springs.

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