Serious about sport |

Serious about sport

Simi Hamilton’s great-grandfather forced the first wagons over a roadless Taylor Pass into Ashcroft in 1880, so it is with little fanfare that the 16-year-old recounts a tale of skinning up Aspen Mountain into a storm with a tent and sleeping bag late Monday night, Dec. 8.

Having taken it easy in nordic races the prior Saturday and Sunday, due to lingering cold symptoms, Hamilton felt refreshed that Monday. When the Aspen High School junior finished his homework and it was still snowing after 10 p.m., he gathered his telemark gear and took off on the impromptu excursion.

By early Tuesday, snowcat activity had ended what he called a “horrible sleep,” and extreme cold made him pay for absentmindedly kicking his tele boots out of the warm bag. But the blizzardlike conditions also supplied him with virgin turns down Ajax before the public loaded the gondola.

Then, young Hamilton hopped on his bike and pedaled to first period at AHS.

Hamilton tells this story as he leads photographer Paul Conrad and me along a thigh-deep boot-packed trail to a makeshift shooting range east of Aspen in the Northstar flood plain. When we reach a clearing by the Roaring Fork River ” “a natural little lane in the willows … it works,” Hamilton shrugs ” there’s a pad of ski-compacted snow. Fifty meters in the distance is an overgrown berm, fronted by a stand of five targets.

Hamilton takes a futuristic-looking .22-caliber rifle off his back, lies down, takes aim and fires off five echoing shots. Aspen’s wunderkind nordic and tele skier and cross-country runner has added biathlon to his repertoire.

The ‘humble’ Hamilton

Two seasons ago Simeon (“Simi” or “Sim”) Hamilton won his first Junior National Championship, a Junior Olympic title, in nordic freestyle, or skate. It was a first for an Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club (AVSC) nordic athlete in at least a decade. The same year, as a freshman at Aspen High, Hamilton won the state high school title in nordic skate.

As a sophomore last season, Hamilton captured state high school championship crowns in the skate and classic-style events. He also defended his J-2 (for 15- and 16-year-olds) Junior Olympic skate title up in Fairbanks, Alaska.

“He’s top dog, nationally. That’s huge ” especially that he repeated it,” said Toby Morse, AVSC nordic director and coach for the last 10 years.

“The bottom line is, the kid is a very blessed athlete.”

Hamilton’s mom, Ruthie Brown, joined AVSC nordic team as a coach when Morse did, along with Travis Moore. That was one year before Hamilton’s older sister, Jenny, now a freshman skier at Middlebury College in Vermont, participated in AVSC’s inaugural “Bill Koch League” nordic program for young children. (The program, founded by Ruthie, continues as “NordWarriors.”)

Simi and Jenny, a 2003 AHS grad, literally grew up on skis, first alpine and then nordic. But Morse says the younger Hamilton is hardly the God-given prodigy he might appear to be.

“Other than the fact that he had pretty immaculate technique early, not much [stands out],” he said. “The thing that really stands out about him is how humble he is … and how much fun he has doing it.

“People know him now,” Morse continued. “They’ve seen him around; heard about him. And I think what makes him such a draw is that he is super-humble. For as much success as he’s had athletically, I’ve never seen that kid cocky. He always has a smile on his face, he’s always helping other kids out, and he’s always having fun.”

Hamilton’s mom and coach, Ruthie, summed it up this way: “A passion for skiing, a passion for the outdoors ” an absolute love for it.”

Have gun, will plink

A family friend from Minnesota introduced Hamilton to biathlon about a year ago. A specialized 12-pound German biathlon rifle arrived in the mail for him soon after, and procuring the shooting range easement near Northstar for practicing came next.

Usually, in order to simulate the lung-busting, thigh-scorching experience of nordic ski racing, Hamilton runs around for a kilometer or so before trying to settle his heart rate and breathing to facilitate firing with sharpshooter precision. That, in a nutshell, is biathlon.

This past summer, as a member of the Junior National Biathlon Team’s development squad, Hamilton traveled to shooting camps in Middle Park, Minn.; West Yellowstone, Wyo.; and the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. Additionally, on a strictly nordic trip (i.e., no shooting), Hamilton toured Sweden and Norway for three weeks with some of America’s other top young nordic racers.

This winter Hamilton plans to continue nordic racing at full steam, while adding some biathlon events to his schedule. His first one ” a real, live-round competition ” is slated for later this month in Minnesota.

“It’s definitely a sport where you can’t just jump into it and expect huge outcomes,” said Hamilton. “A lot of my friends in Minnesota have been shooting since they were 2 years old, and they’re still way struggling. It’s just really hard to be able to ski as hard as you can and then come in and nail off five rounds on target.”

While not universal, biathlon is customarily staged on a 2.5 km-loop course. Competitors ski four laps, stopping after each one to shoot at a row of five metal targets, 50 meters away. Racers shoot twice while standing up (at 10 cm targets), twice while lying down, or prone (at 5 cm targets). Missed targets carry time penalties.

“You can definitely see the progress; biathlon’s funny like that,” said Hamilton. “When you start, you’re just everywhere ” some of ’em don’t even hit the paper. And then as you start shooting more, they come in [closer to the target], come in, and the really good guys, the Olympians, they can put all five shots within that much,” he continues, pinching his thumb and forefinger together.

“The biggest thing is training your muscles ” getting in the position to hold it, every time. Because as soon as you start building up that muscle memory ” snap ” you just get in that position and you’re ready.”

No pain, no gain

After Hamilton won the high school state championship races last February, at Beaver Creek’s Cordillera and Vail, he said: “I was definitely tired, just like everybody else. But No. 1, it’s who can take the most pain. Everyone’s in the same amount of pain, it’s just who can deal with it the most. And No. 2, you’ve got to relax and remember that it’s for fun.

“And you gotta ski from the heart; that’s what the key is.”

Only after recently interviewing Hamilton’s 91-year-old grandfather, D.R.C. Brown, one of the founders of Aspen Mountain as a ski area and former president of the Aspen Skiing Corp., (“I put some money in because I was tired of walking up that hill,” D.R.C. quipped), did the full impact of those comments strike me.

The kid, as coach Morse says, knows what he’s talking about.

“He’s living up to his tough old grandpa,” Ruthie said.

So when Hamilton’s grandfather says, in conclusion to a story about building the Independence Pass road, “Well, they were tough as nails in those days,” Hamilton can nod, knowingly, with the benefit of some four generations of local hindsight.

Tim Mutrie’s e-mail address is

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