USSA honors pioneering Aspen coach |

USSA honors pioneering Aspen coach

Jon Maletz
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN ” Ask Craig Ward about ski jumping, and he reverts to the 7-year-old boy who first took to the air in 1961.

“It’s all about adrenaline,” the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club nordic combined coach said Wednesday. “You just want to go right back up there and do it again. And the better you get, the more I think that feeling increases.”

While he’s been off the long skis since 1981, Ward said he continues to experience a similar sensation. Today, it stems from introducing a new generation of jumpers ” including his son, Michael ” to a sport that has captivated him for more than 40 years.

It stems from seeing the look on a youngster’s face after he or she has completed a jump, Ward said. Those grins are worth more than words.

And those grins are the reason Ward took on the tall task of trying to revive one of Aspen’s once-proud vestiges, one that was abandoned in the 70s. He helped jump-start the club program in the winter of 2004, with expectations as modest as the first 10-meter jump outside the clubhouse.

The excitement is building, however. Success has spawned renewed interest, and plans are currently in the works for three new jumps on Tiehack.

Ward’s efforts aren’t going unnoticed. At Friday night’s United States Ski and Snowboard Association awards dinner in Park City, Utah, peers recognized him as the nordic combined domestic coach of the year.

“I was very excited, not just for myself but really for the ski club and the support the board of trustees has given me,” Ward said. “The parents have gotten behind us, and this is for the jumpers out there. They’re the ones who are going out there and doing it.”

Assistant coach Curt Carpenter praised Ward’s contributions Wednesday.

“His winning that award is affirmation for his enthusiasm for this sport,” Carpenter said. “It’s a real nice slap on the back from a bunch of guys who have been watching him start at absolute ground zero and build this thing ever so slowly. He really deserves it.”

Ward first fell in love with the sport on the 30- and 60-meter jumps that once sat on top of Mill Street. They were dismantled decades ago because of disinterest and development opportunities.

After moving east, Ward was a member of the NCAA’s nordic combined team during his freshman and sophomore years at Middlebury College in Vermont. He later decided to focus solely on cross country ” “I loved to jump, I just wasn’t as good in it,” he said.

The move paved the way for a distinguished nine-year career with the U.S. Ski Team. He competed in the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y., and was a member of the six-man World Championship teams in 1978 and 1982.

In the years after leaving the U.S. team in 1984, Ward worked with disabled skiers, helped coach at multiple U.S. women’s training camps and, after moving back to Aspen in 1984, began coaching AVSC’s nordic skiers.

The club dropped its jumping program in 1976, at the same time other clubs as well as the NCAA opted to move in a similar direction, Ward said. The jumping program faltered because the number of participants couldn’t support the club’s myriad of programs.

When the idea of reviving the program was bandied about earlier this decade, Ward jumped at the chance to spearhead the effort. Ward, who last jumped in 1981 ” five times off the 90-meter hill at Lake Placid, he remembered ” was convinced the interest would return.

“Ski jumping is the ultimate ‘build it and they will come’ sport,” Ward said. “Kids love to jump. They jump on bikes and on water skis, and it’s always about who can go the furthest. … Once you do it, you want to go further and go higher. That’s where the passion comes in.

“I’ve always said that if ski jumping weren’t invented by now, the X Games would invent it.”

The program started small. Literally. A handful of jumpers, using equipment donated from Steamboat Springs, participated in the winter of 2004 on a 10-meter jump outside the clubhouse. Soon after, they moved to a temporary 25-meter jump near Eagle Hill on Buttermilk.

A dozen kids ” some of them siblings ” came out this past winter, Ward said.

Both Ward and Carpenter expect that number to spike considerably in the coming years. Three jumps ” 20, 40 and 68 meters ” are part of Buttermilk’s master plan, which the forest service is currently reviewing.

“The [coaches] at Steamboat and Park City told us, ‘When these jumps are built, you’re going to just be amazed how many kids come out,'” said Carpenter, who grew up jumping on a small hill at Blackhawk Ski Club in Madison, Wis. “Once you see a real jump on a big hill, it’s just the most breathtaking sport. It’s so much fun for the kids. It’s scary as all get out and has that real pucker factor. … It’s a terrain park times 10, but it’s safe.”

Ward has allowed himself to ponder the possibility of hosting future Rocky Mountain Division competitions, even Western Regional or North American Junior championships. He knows it will take time, however.

In the meantime, he’ll settle for seeing the joy on his young jumpers’ faces. That, more than any award, is most gratifying of all, he said.

“Where the rubber meets the road is when you see a kid hiking up the hill and coming up to you with the biggest smile on their face. They don’t have to say a thing,” he said. “I’m not out there because I want to do it, I’m out there because I know they’re having fun. It’s exciting to see them progress and see them challenge themselves and each other.

“Once the club sees this, they’ll wonder why they ever let it go.”


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