A few days before competing in the Engadin Marathon in Switzerland last March, Ben Sim stood atop a snow-covered hill in Germany. Sim, an Australian, was about to find out whether he could make the jump from cross-country skiing to nordic combined.
Observing were Finn Marsland, the coach of the Australian cross-country ski team, and Fabian Mauz, a German coach who had assisted some Australian athletes at the Junior World Championships in the Black Forest in January.
Sim, an Olympian in cross-country, had never launched himself off a ski jump before. But he and Marsland had prevailed upon Mauz—who was also a nordic combined coach and former competitor—to loan Sim some equipment and let him try it out.
The conditions weren’t ideal. The small jump had been built by Mauz himself, and there was no grooming—the men had packed down the tracks with their boots the previous day.
Sim wasn’t intimidated at all, though. He strapped on his pair of borrowed skis, slid down the in-run, and flew through the air. Then he climbed back up to the top for another round, and kept at it for half a day.
Sim was enjoying himself, and it didn’t take long for him to get used to the equipment. By the end of their session, Mauz was impressed.
“Fabian was actually quite surprised how quickly he picked it up,” Marsland said. “He gave Ben a lot of really good feedback.”
From there, Marsland sprang into motion, and that single session in the Black Forest has now snowballed into an ambitious attempt to launch an Australian program in nordic combined—the sport that pairs cross-country skiing and ski jumping.
Around the same time Sim was taking flight in Germany, Marsland had contacted Greg Poirier, an American nordic combined national team coach, to get some information about athlete development. When he returned home, Marsland successfully applied for funding for an initiative to establish the sport in Australia, which has already paid for Sim to travel to Utah for a jumping camp, and could lead to his participation in nordic combined at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi. There’s more: Marsland’s ambitions may also result in the construction of a series of small ski jumps in Australia, where none currently exist.
Uli Wehling, the nordic combined race director for the International Ski Federation (FIS), said that a project like Marsland’s had never been attempted.
“In [the] case that we start from more or less zero to build up the discipline—I think it’s the first time,” he said. But, he added: “We welcome all new nations to take part in nordic combined.”
A Two-Pronged Plan
Ski jumping in Australia dates back at least to the 1930s—a 1932 article in the Australian Quarterly cites the incorporation, two years earlier, of the Australian Ski-Jumping Club. Several hills were constructed in the southern part of the country, but according to Sim and Marsland, none remain today.
Hal Nerdal, a Norwegian immigrant, is the only Australian ever to compete in the Olympics in either ski jumping or nordic combined—he finished dead last of 31 athletes in the nordic combined competition at the 1960 Squaw Valley Games.
Sim could be the next. While on a good day he can be competitive at the upper levels of cross-country skiing, Sim said that his two top-50 finishes in the sport in Vancouver most likely fell short of what was necessary to obtain future funding from the Australian government.
In fact, before the Olympics, a strength coach had suggested to Sim that at 5’10” and just shy of 150 pounds, his slighter build was more suited to nordic combined than to cross-country skiing. Sim laughed off the comment at the time, but after the Games, he and Marsland discovered that there was money available from FIS and the International Olympic Committee (IOC), to introduce countries to new Olympic sports. Facing the prospect of having to self-fund the next few years of his cross-country career—and after the promising day of jumping in Germany—nordic combined began looking like a more attractive option. Especially when Marsland, back in Australia, was able to quickly obtain a roughly $9,500 grant from FIS.
“When you have to work full-time to do your sport, to work to earn money so I can travel, it makes it a lot harder,” Sim said. “Doing nordic combined—it lets me just do another year of full-time training.”
The FIS grant, as well as additional money forthcoming from the IOC, will be used to pay for a two-pronged attempt to establish nordic combined in the Australia. First, Sim will spend at least a year learning to jump, with the hopes of reaching the World Cup nordic combined circuit by 2012-2013 and the Sochi Games in 2014.
Second, with the help of Poirier, Marsland is hoping to find a suitable location in Australia for the construction of some novice ski jumps, which will be used to introduce a pool of younger athletes to the sport.
“It’s the bigger project of trying to see whether we can put in a bit of a development plan,” Marsland said. “It would be fantastic if we could have jumps here in Australia to get development happening at a junior level. For any sort of long-term security of the sport, that’s the only way to go.”
An Uphill Battle for Sim
After obtaining the grant from FIS, Marsland worked with staff and coaches at the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association to schedule a two-week jumping camp for Sim in Park City, Utah, in July.
Poirier connected Sim with Alan Alborn, a former Olympic ski jumper who now coaches Park City’s club program. Alborn had Sim start from scratch, beginning with trips down the landing hill of a 10-meter jump to get used to the summer sliding surface. By the time Sim returned to Australia a few weeks ago, he had worked all the way up to the venue’s 40-meter hill.
“He’s doing quite well, as far as the progression that we normally see,” Alborn said, adding that Sim had been very receptive to coaching.
To become a proficient jumper at age 25, Sim still has his work cut out for him. According to Poirier, nordic combined skiers typically start jumping before they turn 10 years old.
However, a similar path has been blazed at least once before, by American Matt Dayton. Dayton didn’t take up jumping until he was 18, then qualified for the 2002 Olympic Games seven years later and helped the U.S. team to a fourth-place finish in the relay.
According to current U.S. Nordic Combined Team Head Coach Dave Jarrett, Dayton was never among the top jumpers on the World Cup circuit. But like Sim, Dayton was a strong cross-country skier, and he relied on that fitness to propel him to three top-ten finishes over the course of his career.
“Had he been able to get his jumping a little bit closer, he would have been even better,” Jarrett said.
According to Poirier, Sim possesses the same qualities that made Dayton successful—drive and self-motivation.
“Ben Sim falls in that same ballpark,” Poirier said.
Sim is now back in Australia for the Southern Hemisphere’s winter season, but he will return to the U.S. for another two- to three-week camp at the end of September—possibly accompanied by a junior teammate, Jackson Bursill.
On that trip, Alborn said, Sim will likely move up to Park City’s 60-meter hill, where he’ll have to hunker down and spend a lot of time working on technique and accumulating repetitions.
Sim acknowledged that he still has some work to do to get comfortable. During his next camp, he said that he’ll be focused on staying “a bit more relaxed in the air.”
“I feel like I’m pretty tense,” he said.
Sim will take one more trip home in late October to spend time with his fiancée, then fly back to Utah again, where he plans on spending most of the winter, “just jumping every day, as much as I can.”
He’ll continue to train for cross-country skiing, but Sim will limit his racing to the U.S. domestic circuit, save for the World Ski Championships in Norway at the end of the season.
“Realistically, if I want to have any chance for trying to qualify for World Cup competitions or Olympics in four years, I think I need to learn how to jump pretty quickly,” Sim said.
Sim’s goal is to jump from the 90-meter hill—generally the smallest size used for elite competitions—by the end of the winter, which is “pretty realistic,” according to Alborn.
But Alborn added that graduating to larger jumps is not simply a matter of courage. Technique and fundamentals are crucial, and launching from the big hills can sometimes act as an impediment to learning by sending athletes flying at higher speeds.
“It inhibits them from learning the really basic skills for ski jumping,” Alborn said. “We like to teach the more fundamental ideas first, so they really groove that in.”
If his timeline goes according to plan, and if he demonstrates sufficient potential for the sport, Sim hopes to be able to obtain funding for future seasons of nordic combined training from Australia’s ski federation. But if he hasn’t been able to brave the 90-meter hill by next summer, the project will conclude.
“Fingers crossed it works,” Sim said. “I’m just keen to see how it goes, really.”
One thing that does not seem to be in doubt is Sim’s ability to cross-country ski with the best of the nordic combined athletes. According to Jarrett, Sim participated in a handful of workouts with the American team during his July jumping camp, and he “certainly held his own.”
“It’d be good for us to have another fast guy around,” Jarrett said.
The “Crazy Idea”
While Sim travels to the U.S. for his second camp in September, Poirier, the American coach, is planning his own trip to Australia.
For three or four days, Poirier will visit ski resorts in the towns of Falls Creek and Perisher Valley. Funded by the grant money, he’ll be scouting a suitable site for a series of small ski jumps designed to introduce juniors to the sport.
Initially, Poirier said, the jumps would be sculpted from snow, at a relatively minimal cost.
“It’s a matter of [a ski] area’s willingness to dedicate some snowmaking time and some Cat time,” he said. “Hopefully, they’ll be psyched for this kind of crazy idea.”
If the jumps go over well, more extensive work would be required to make them suitable for competitions. But for now, Poirier said, “I don’t think we need perfect jumps.”
“We just need a slope and a jump to get kids excited about trying jumping and nordic combined,” Poirier said. If they’re successful, he added, “then hopefully they’ll put some financial resources into the long run.”
Marsland said that he hopes Sim’s nordic combined exploits will inspire younger athletes to take up the sport. “That will certainly help bring a little more attention to nordic sports in general, and that’s definitely part of our thinking,” he said. “I think we should be able to get a bit of publicity…out of the media here in Australia.”
However, he cautioned, it’s still too early to tell whether Sim will be able to bring his jumping to a level that will get him results.
“That’s what Ben’s goal is at the moment—to make it to a competitive level,” Marsland said. “We’ll find out over the next year if he has what it takes, or if he doesn’t.”