Learning to Fly in Lake Placid

Nathaniel HerzSeptember 8, 20103
A participant in the New York Ski Educational Foundation's August Grasshopper camp prepares for lift-off.

How do you get dozens of youngsters to try out a sport like ski jumping?

For the staff of the New York Ski Educational Foundation (NYSEF), that’s not just an idle question to ponder. It’s crucial for the club to attract large numbers of kids to try out the sport if they want to turn out athletes with hopes of ever competing at an elite level.

From the outside, ski jumping seems like it should be difficult to break into, with its intimidation factor and high cost scaring off wary parents. But a visit to a NYSEF “Grasshopper” camp for juniors at the Lake Placid Jumping Complex in mid-August showed just how the club had overcome those hurdles—making the sport accessible, and attractive, to local children.

Make it Accessible

According to NYSEF Ski Jumping Head Coach Casey Colby, the club tries to attract local kids to the sport by reducing costs for interested parents.

A Grasshopper camp participant readies himself at the top of the K-18 with the help of coach Matt Cook.

“It’s hard to get kids to do this sport, because it’s not something you do recreationally, with your buddies,” Colby said. “It’s like the drug-dealer style of recruitment. You’ve gotta go out and let ’em do it for free.”

Colby cited a program that NYSEF ran last winter, Learn to Fly Wednesdays, in which local kids could take a crack at jumping in exchange for $5. They weren’t big moneymakers, but Colby credited the sessions with creating greater interest in the Grasshopper camps throughout the summer. Twenty-six kids were enrolled in the mid-August session, as opposed to a mere seven last summer.

At $150 for three days, including lunch, the Grasshopper camps don’t break the bank, either. Equipment would be a formidable expense for parents—if they had to buy it. But the kids in the NYSEF programs don’t have to bring their own: The club owns an entire fleet of skis, and spare suits hang from a rack in the lodge.

The low cost doesn’t mean that kids will sign up automatically, though—their parents must also be convinced of the safety of the sport before they’re willing to let their children strap on skis.

Colby said that he has enlisted the parents of some of Lake Placid’s best jumpers to help sell the sport, including the mother of 2010 Olympian Peter Frenette.

“Her job last winter, as she saw it, was to make sure the parents were involved,” Colby said. “I think parents—their view of ski jumping is ABC’s Wide World of Sports, agony of defeat…The first time they go to practice and they see a couple of kids fall, they’re kind of freaked out, because it looks horrendous. But 99.9 percent of the time, they get back up, they grab their stuff, and they go back up the hill.”

Scaling Down the Fear Factor

Ski jumping doesn’t sound like a summer sport, but during the off-season the snow and ice that covers Lake Placid’s hills in winter is replaced by a porcelain and plastic facsimile—the former substance is used for the tracks on the in-run, and the latter is laid out in shingles the landing hill.

Regardless of the surface, for anyone who has seen ski jumping on TV—or worse, in person—it’s difficult to imagine how anyone could ever be convinced to launch themselves from those towering, Olympic-sized hills.

But the only time the kids in the Grasshopper camp go near the top of Lake Placid’s Olympic jumps is for lunch, which occurs in the observation platform of the 120-meter hill.

The rest of the time, participants hone technique and confidence on the K-18 jump, which is tucked out of the way on the complex’s hillside, between some

The in-run of Lake Placid's K-18 jump.

buildings and a stand of trees.

Unless you’re already familiar with the sport, describing Lake Placid’s smallest jump as “the K-18” doesn’t say much. The number refers to the distance from the take-off, in meters, at which the landing hill begins to flatten out—generally the farthest that the young athletes traveled on their jumps.

During the August camp, few flew farther than 15 meters, and the kids were never more than a few feet off the ground.

While the K-18 is far smaller than Lake Placid’s Olympic jumps (which are K-90 and K-120), the kids still build their way up to it.

During the winter Learn to Fly lessons, they start with ski play and balance drills before progressing to actual jumping. In the summer, many of the children warm up simply by gliding down the landing hill, without jumping at all.

“We’ve learned to take down the intimidation factors—the big skis, the gnarly crashes that kids see,” said Dave McCahill, one of the NYSEF junior coaches behind the winter jumping sessions and the Grasshopper camps.

According to McCahill, the younger kids seem to pick up the sport more quickly. But regardless of age, the initial jumps are still scary. Pre-teen A.J. King described his first time as “a little freaky”—although it didn’t take long for him to get over it.

“I was kind of scared. But then I did it and I felt great,” he said. King, a New Hampshire native, learned to jump with the Andover Outing Club, and he also competes in nordic combined.

Billy Demong, another Lake Placid native who won gold in nordic combined at the 2010 Olympics, recalled being the most reluctant of all of his friends when he started in the sport. But that feeling, he said, eventually dissipated.

“Fear kind of fueled me to keep showing up. And then you kind of hit that requisite point where you finally get some air under your skis and…go down the hill a little ways, and it makes it worthwhile,” he said. “That’s where you go from being afraid of the sport to, ‘[I] can’t wait to get back to the top of the hill.’”

Incremental Increases

The progression from the K-18 up to Olympic hills is incremental: once the kids master the K-18, they move up to Lake Placid’s K-40, where they build confidence and gain experience. There’s nothing between the K-40 and the K-90 at the complex, but athletes will practice on other hills throughout the country between K-60 and K-70 before making that jump.

At the August camp, there were kids all along the continuum—some who were still working up the courage to try the jump for the first time, and others who would jockey for position at the top of the hill.

While the camps are informal—they’re about having fun—there’s still a lot of thought going into the coaching. McCahill has the kids practicing take-off

Camp participants taking in the action at a "Soaring Saturday" competition

technique during morning stretching, and he gives them feedback on their jumps throughout the day. There’s even a brief video review session after lunch.

“We’re trying to stress a good understanding of technique and form at an early level,” McCahill said. “We’re trying to keep the kids informed about what they’re doing, and why it’s working.”

It’s not as serious as the rigorous analysis you might find at the college level, but Colby says it still works.

“These kids are actually learning, and they don’t have a clue,” he said. “Half the time they just come off every single jump and ask, ‘How far’d I go? How far’d I go?’ They really don’t know that they’re getting better.”

Make the Path Clear

As much as anywhere else in the country, the path to jumping greatness is laid out clearly for the aspiring juniors at the Grasshopper camp.

Aside from the obvious progression in the size of the hills, from K-18 to K-120, camp participants can see elite athletes in action on a weekly basis, which provides them with ample inspiration.

Each weekend during the summer, the complex hosts Soaring Saturdays, a low-key competition in which elite jumpers like Frenette, a Lake Placid native,

Kids gather to get their equipment autographed.

vie for a prize purse of a few hundred dollars.

Given the sport’s eye-catching nature, it’s easy for the events to draw crowds of the town’s ubiquitous tourists. An announcer hypes up the athletes, and even officiates a few minor league baseball-style t-shirt giveaways.

The festive atmosphere is like a drug for the camp participants, who spend an hour after lunch at the Grasshopper camp taking in the competition. They stand next to the take-off and watch in awe as their idols fly past, picking out the best jumpers by name. Later, they swarm Frenette and others for autographs.

The attention and status afforded to the elite jumpers makes the sport that much more appealing to the youngsters, some of whom even see ski jumping as a path to fame and fortune, misguided as that may be. (The American jumpers gained notoriety at the 2010 Olympics for the odd jobs each had taken on to support their competition schedule; Frenette was an ice cream scooper.)

Asked what he liked about the sport, King spent just as much time talking about stardom as he did about the jumping itself.

“Everybody’s cheering you on, [you] get in the newspaper, on the news, go really far, and stuff. Win money, and have fun,” he said.

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Nathaniel Herz

Nat Herz is an Alaska-based journalist who moonlights for FasterSkier as an occasional reporter and podcast host. He was FasterSkier's full-time reporter in 2010 and 2011.

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  • RonBott

    September 8, 2010 at 8:35 am

    Great article, I always wondered how jumpers got started.

  • jkirlin

    September 8, 2010 at 9:49 am

    Enjoyed the article. Was wondering where to older athletes go who wish to learn to jump?

  • Nathaniel Herz

    September 8, 2010 at 11:32 am

    Check back tomorrow for an answer, jkirlin!

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