International Nordic combined returning in December to Steamboat Springs
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Elite international Nordic combined competition is coming back to Steamboat Springs this winter.
Howelsen Hill will be the stage for three Nordic combined Continental Cup races early this season. The first race is set for Dec. 15, with one on Dec. 16 and the final race on Dec. 17.
Those events will mark the first stop for the Continental Cup in Steamboat Springs since December 2010, and organizers are hoping it can help reignite a long tradition in the town of playing host to such international events.
“We either had a World Cup or a Continental Cup almost every year from 1994 through 2010,” said Todd Wilson, Nordic combined director for Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club. “Bringing in athletes like that to your hometown has some real magic to it, some real benefit and it will be great to get a taste of that again.”
The opportunity came as a shock to Wilson.
There were real reasons why Steamboat got out of the habit of hosting those events. The International Ski Federation, or FIS, must certify jumps for official FIS competitions such as World Cups and Continental Cups. Steamboat’s two largest jumps, an HS100 and an HS127, were built in the late 1970s and were regularly re-certified until 2011.
They’d been regularly upgraded to meet those certification demands, but eventually became to antiquated by international standards, the primary problem being that they were too steep.
A new jump was built to FIS standards in 2006, but it was smaller, of the HS75 size, a size down from the jumps used for most top international ski jumping and Nordic combined competitions.
“We thought our only chance was a women’s jumping World Cup or a women’s Nordic combined event,” Wilson said.
Several forces came together to change that. There was strong support from USA Nordic, the organization managing the nation’s men’s and women’s ski jumping and Nordic combined programs. FIS was eager to maintain events in North America, and, the other potential North American venues were ruled out for one reason or another.
The FIS certificates for Lake Placid, New York’s jumps expired similar to those for Steamboat’s biggest jumps. The 2002 Winter Olympic venue in Park City, Utah, a more regular host for such events in recent seasons, wasn’t eager to put on such an event after playing host to the Nordic Junior World Ski Championships last winter. Then the 2010 Winter Olympic venue at Whistler Olympic Park in British Columbia, Canada, was reluctant to squeeze a Nordic combined Continental Cup event in with an already busy December ski jumping event schedule.
That left Steamboat, which to USA Nordic director Bill Demong was the ideal outcome all along.
“This is something we’ve been quietly working on all summer,” said Demong, who as an athlete trained for years in Steamboat Springs and competed in six World Cup and two Continental Cup events in the city.
Demong said he had assurances from FIS that an exception would be made for Steamboat’s HS75 hill, so long as it was certified. It had never been, and the key to getting the whole plan to start moving forward didn’t come until September when a FIS inspector was able to visit the site.
Some of his findings weren’t surprising. Steamboat’s larger, older hills need serious work. Some findings, however, were.
“We were thinking we have to do work to our 75 to get certificates, but amazingly enough, we’re good to go,” Wilson said. “We got the certificates, which surprised the heck out of us.”
The next step was a trip to Tuesday’s Steamboat Springs City Council meeting, where City Manager Gary Suiter asked the council to sign off on spending up to $20,000, if needed, for maintenance on city snowmaking and other equipment required for the event.
That was approved.
Demong said the event isn’t yet fully funded and that organizers are reaching out for private donations. Another $16,000 will come from Canada since USA Nordic helps run that nation’s Nordic combined team.
“This is tremendously beneficial for Steamboat,” councilwoman Kathi Meyer said in Tuesday’s meeting. “We will have media up from Denver, television coverage and we will bring our U.S. Ski Team home in December, right before the Olympics.”
The opportunity to have those U.S. skiers compete in Steamboat was one perk that stood out for many.
Nations hosting such events get a bump in allotted spots from four to eight, meaning much of the eight-man U.S. team will compete, as well as some younger skiers getting their first taste of senior international competition.
There are currently eight skiers on the U.S. team, and five — Bryan Fletcher, Taylor Fletcher, Ben Berend, Jasper Good and Grant Andrews — who were born or raised in Steamboat Springs.
“This is probably the single most important international event we can host from a team development standpoint,” Demong said. “One of the things we battle in our development pipeline is getting young athletes experience on the Continental Cup.”
He’s expecting the development benefit to go a little deeper, as well.
“This is really a catalyst for Steamboat, to inspire that next generation,” he said.
Berend wrote a letter to City Council telling the story of attending one of the races hosted in Steamboat when he was a first grader.
That day “changed the boy’s life forever,” Berend wrote. “He began having dreams of being one of those athletes, showcasing him in front of the entire town.”
He realized that dream more than a decade later and now is a fixture on the U.S. team.
It’s not decided whether Berend will be one of the U.S. skiers to compete that weekend. The team usually sends one top athlete home from the World Cup hoping to shine on home snow and win crucial world ranking points that can help the team earn an extra spot in World Cup competitions.
That person could be Bryan Fletcher, likely retiring at the end of the season. As for the rest of the lineup, that remains to be decided.
“I think it will be a case where guys are arguing to come back to Steamboat and the Continental Cup rather than go to Austria and the World Cup,” Demong said.
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Strange is a word that will likely define the winter high school sports season. But, after numerous delays and endless doubts, that season is finally here. It will include fewer games, more masks and a lot of empty seats, but adapting to that strangeness is better than the alternative.