Up in the air, Junior Birdmen … | AspenTimes.com

Up in the air, Junior Birdmen …

A youngster’s affinity for catching air ” on skis, sled, bike, diving board, trampoline or otherwise ” is universal. This much I know.

But after watching 11-year-old Tye Thomas repeatedly hurl himself off the new 15-meter nordic ski jump behind the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club in a strengthening snowstorm one recent afternoon, I’m compelled to prove my theory.

“I just like to jump, get the air,” the Aspen fifth-grader, who’s all helmet and goggles, says. “Yeah, that’s it.”

He then continues to hike up a steep embankment (aka the landing zone) that in summer defines fair and foul ground along left field of the Aspen High School softball diamond.

Under the watch of former Olympian Craig Ward of Aspen, who has taken a half-dozen or so AVSC youths interested in ski jumping under his wing, Thomas repeats the drill:

Walk up the short but steep hill above the softball field to the start platform;

Affix the borrowed, cumbersome, superwide-and-tall 180 cm jumping skis to the borrowed patent-leatherlike boots;

Give a shout out ” “Clear!”;

Then, with clearance from below, pull out of the start with gusto;

Duck into a tuck with both arms cocked behind;

Spring out on liftoff, mindful to keep the tips up;

Spot the landing;

Stick-it telemark-style and stand up into the runout;

Skid to a stop where the shortstop usually stands;

Do it all over again.

Thomas isn’t catching much air, maybe 15 or 20 feet, but he’s clearly got this nordic jumping thing down. Freestyler Steele Spence he’s not, what with the lunging, straight-forward lurch on takeoff, a movement reminiscent of the Olympic practitioners we see on TV once every four years.

Later, after he makes four or five more jumps with ever-increasing confidence and style, I ask some more questions. And compared to some of the snowboarders (and, OK, skiers) I spoke with during the X Games, young Thomas is strikingly eloquent.

“It’s pretty hard,” he says ” this his sixth or seventh time practicing on the nordic jump. “But once I felt like I had the landing and the in-run and the takeoff all mastered, I just started going for it.”

Thomas’ dad, Mike, whose Georgia accent belies his comfort on this cold, snowy day, just shrugs and smiles as he watches from the side.

“You know kids, they love that air.”

Jumping in

Aspen’s nordic ski jumping history dates back to 1937, when funds from the Works Progress Administration (WPA) afforded construction of two jumps at the top of Mill Street, a 30- and 60-meter, called the Willoughby Jumps after then-Aspen Ski Club president Frank Willoughby.

In the 1960s, however, due to lack of interest, nordic ski jumping ceased in Aspen. But, stressing the importance of “four-event” training, former Ski Club coach Gale Spence revived the sport locally for a brief period in the 1970s. Around 1977, it vanished altogether.

This past fall, nordic enthusiasts like Ward, lamenting the loss of nordic jumping, began laying plans for another revival. With the support of AVSC, Aspen Earthmoving (which pushed dirt into what’s now “the jump”) and other local ski jumping enthusiasts, the small hill behind the AVSC clubhouse was born.

And in January, the jumping commenced.

“It’s a real fun thing to do,” said Ward, who began ski jumping in Aspen at the age of 7. “You know, you build a ski jump and kids will just flock to it. That’s always been the case.”

A donor’s contribution enabled AVSC to secure eight pairs of state-of-the-art jumping skis and boots, all available for loan, and nowadays on Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons the jump is clear for takeoff. Newcomers are welcome, of course.

Later this winter, Ward plans to bring his young jumpers to Steamboat Springs and Winter Park, where more sizable jumps await.

“We’re doing this for the kids, obviously, but there’s also a lot of interest from older folks,” chuckled Ward, a 1980 Olympian and two-time competitor in the World Championships.

Incidentally, in 1975, as soon as Ward stopped ski jumping to focus solely on nordic racing, he vaulted onto the U.S. Ski Team.

“As it turned out, I was a much better cross-country skier than jumper or nordic combined skier, but I still absolutely love to jump,” he said. “I’ve got a great story for you …”

In the meantime, the small AVSC jump remains a leaping-off point for bigger things. Ward, a member of a 10-person ski jumping committee in Aspen, said plans are in the works to build a first-rate nordic ski jumping complex in Aspen. Ward declined to talk specifically, saying “we want to do our homework first,” but confirmed the group would be appearing before the Aspen City Council in the not-too-distant future with a proposal.

“We’re hoping this thing takes off,” Ward said with a smile.

Clearly, after watching Tye Thomas and some of the other young jumpers, if you build it, they will come.

Tim Mutrie’s e-mail address is mutrie@aspentimes.com