AVSC taking jump back to the past | AspenTimes.com
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AVSC taking jump back to the past

Jon Maletz
Craig Ward, left, works with Fritz Carpenter on jumping techniques Tuesday afternoon at the nordic jumping hill at Tiehack. (Mark Fox/The Aspen Times)
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Nine-year-old Sevrin Mathys, skis propped on his right shoulder, made his first hike up the hill Tuesday. He stepped gingerly in the knee-deep snow. As he reached a crest in the hill and a flat area that afforded him a moment to take a breather, Sevrin flashed a quizzical look. In between short gasps, he spoke.”Are there any more newspapers coming?” he said. “How ’bout any magazines?”It seemed like a wisecrack from one of the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club nordic jumping team’s characters. But maybe Sevrin had good reason for the inquiry. After all, for the first time in decades, ski jumping is making news again in Aspen.It has been more than 40 years since athletes tested their nerves on the 30- and 60-meter ski jumps that used to grace the top of Mill Street; since jumping was an integral part of local consciousness and identity. The jumps were dismantled decades ago because of disinterest and development opportunities. The excitement is back, however. You can see it on the faces of a new generation of jumpers. You can see it on the face of coach Craig Ward. The program, which began two seasons ago with expectations as modest as the first 10-meter jump alongside the clubhouse, is building momentum.A temporary 25-meter jump now stands skier’s left of Eagle Hill on Buttermilk. Seven AVSC athletes competed last weekend at Steamboat, and Ward is quick to point out the club is grooming two 8-year-olds to join the team in the near future.”I know that if we build a bigger ski jump, kids would want to jump off it,” Ward said Tuesday as he shoveled fresh snow out of the landing area.

It’s 3:40, and preparations are under way. Snow must be cleared. The end run must be sideslipped. Ward, working alone, drags a rake over the takeoff and spreads clusters of pine needles over the landing; the light is low, so airborne skiers need a visual marker.While construction crews busy themselves with hammers and drills in the nearby Pfister Drive cul-de-sac, Ward talks about his plans.”Where you’re standing is going to 12 feet lower,” he says. “We need the landing to be steeper and the runout to be flat so the kids can stop.” He points to a house abutting Oregon Trail: “We had a skier hit that house,” he says. “He just missed the window.”Far off in the distance, small figures appear on the Aspen Recreation Center bridge. One by one, they straggle over. Their mismatched, multicolored ski suits stand out against the white background.

Time is of the essence: Jumpers skiing for teams in Steamboat and Winter Park, which benefit from top-flight training facilities, have logged 400 jumps each this season. AVSC skiers are lucky if they have 50, Carpenter said. On this day, skiers will have four or five opportunities to jump before the sun disappears completely.Considering the discrepancy, AVSC’s results last weekend were surprising, Carpenter said. Friday, under the lights of Steamboat’s Howelsen Hill, Terry Leitch completed jumps of 29 and 21.5 meters, and finished 11th out of 22. Michael Ward finished 12th.”Maybe it’s sheer athleticism, but that’s not quite it,” Carpenter said. “Aspen kids are on skis for so much of their life. When they put on jumping skis, they are just big skis. They are not intimidated and handle it beautifully. They are fearless.”The team stops momentarily to stretch and work on technique. Craig Ward keeps his teaching simple. The lower you get, the more power you’ll have, just like a rubber band, he says. Keep the knees wide. Get low. Drive up at the takeoff.Michael, 13, is the first to clip into his telemark-like bindings at the top of the hill. As he pushes off and settles into a crouch, the mountain is quiet. Ward is muttering under his breath. “Focus. Focus. Focus,” he says, each word gradually increasing in pitch.Whoosh. As Michael takes off, the wind whistles through his suit. After little more than a second in the air, he glides to a soft landing.

“It looks dangerous, but this is a very safe sport,” Carpenter said. “That’s a really hard thing to explain to people. If parents knew how safe this was and if kids came out and found out how much fun and what an amazing rush this is, I’d like to think we’d have a lot more jumpers.” “All clear. Stay low.” Ward’s voice echoes as he yells up to the starting area. Fritz Carpenter, 11, has a clean takeoff and smooth landing. Ward claps his hands emphatically.Sevrin next charges down the narrow hill, keeping his skis in the well-established grooves left by his teammates. As he takes off, Sevrin lets out a shout that continues until he comes to rest. Before turning to make his way back up, he plops down in the soft snow.Steve Anderson, a first-year jumper, is the last to take the leap. While he remains silent at takeoff, the smile on Steve’s face is far more revealing than words. Such reactions, not just results, are the mark of a successful program, Carpenter said.”I suppose we’d define success by how well we do, but our program is so young,” he said. “The fact that they’re having fun is hugely important, and that’s rewarding for me. I can tell when everyone is having a good day, when they basically run up that hill to hit the jump. They climb through that fresh snow with skis twice their size. You couldn’t force a kid to do that if he didn’t enjoy it.”House lights illuminate the adjacent hillsides as the team continues to take turns. The track becomes more defined, increasing the speed. The jumpers continuously fly farther down the landing hill.

The sensation isn’t quite like taking off from the 72-meter hill at Steamboat, or the one the team will experience during its next competition, Feb. 3 and 4 in Park City. The technique is the same: It’s all about concentration. It’s all about timing. It’s only a matter of time, Ward said, before Aspen will be among ski jumping’s elite programs. He envisions his athletes training on the same plastic slopes that competitors in Steamboat and Winter Park use all year long. Maybe there will be lights so the team can add more practice time during short winter days. Despite the program’s current limitations, you won’t hear any complaining from Ward or Carpenter. They are quick to thank the Aspen Skiing Co. for letting them train on Buttermilk, and Steamboat for donating skis and suits. With equipment stockpiled and interest from local youths growing, Carpenter expects the team to build momentum in coming years. Couple that with the enthusiasm each member of the team exudes, and prospects for the future of ski jumping in Aspen looks as promising as its past. “The kids are smart and are terrific listeners,” Carpenter said. “They are learning something on jump after jump. It’s obvious they’re having a blast.”Jon Maletz’s e-mail address is jmaletz@aspentimes.com


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