As I pulled into the parking lot in Lake Placid at 8:30 on a Saturday morning, two hours before the launch of my ski jumping career, I was feeling an appropriate amount of trepidation. Not none, but not a jaw-clenching, heart-thumping terror, either. More like pre-race nerves.
I got out of the car, carried my backpack up to the lodge, and took a look around. I could see four ski jumps: the two gigantic Olympic 90- and 120-meter hills, a slightly smaller one, and then a medium-sized jump directly in front of me. That couldn’t be the 18-meter hill that I’d be jumping off later today, could it? It looked way too big. Where was the tiny jump that I’d be learning on?
I was in Lake Placid for a Grasshopper Camp hosted by the New York Ski Educational Foundation (NYSEF). All the other participants were juniors, but Dave McCahill, one of the coaches, had agreed to let me participate. He told me that as an experienced cross-country skier, I’d be jumping off the 18-meter hill with ease by the end of the day. I took his word for it.
At 8:45, McCahill arrived. After exchanging greetings, I pointed at the medium-sized jump and asked him as nonchalantly as possible: “So, is that the 18-meter?”
I was trying to sound calm, even though an answer in the affirmative would consign me to certain death.
“Oh yeah!” McCahill said cheerfully. “That’s it!”
My mind immediately filled with unprintable words. My fate was sealed.
My plan for the day was twofold. First, I was in Lake Placid to write a standard, third-person story about the Grasshopper camps. I was hoping to answer the question that everyone asks—or at least the question that I always ask—whenever I see anyone competing in ski jumping: How would you ever get started in such an insane sport?
The purpose of my second piece was essentially the same, but from a different angle. Instead of merely watching the kids jump and getting the story second-hand, I wanted to try it myself. If a bunch of ten-year-olds with minimal skiing experience could successfully land from the 18-meter hill, I should be able to pick it up fairly quickly, given my eight years of cross-country ski racing experience. Right?
McCahill agreed. “We could shoot you off the 18-meter by the end of the first day. It’d be radical,” he wrote in an e-mail.
McCahill, a former elite jumper and nordic combined racer himself, helped me pick out an eight-foot pair of neon green Elan jumping skis and ratty boots, the latter of which did not look like they would be able to withstand the massive forces of landing from the 18-meter jump. To test them out, I squeezed the boots on, stepped into the bindings, and found myself tilting forward at a precarious angle. I felt like I was about to pitch face-first onto the carpet. At what point was I getting too far into this operation to back out?
The kids started arriving, all of who were rambunctious, friendly, and inquisitive. And normal—none of them had mohawks or piercings. The parents were normal, too: They didn’t look negligent, or even indifferent, as one might expect of people who would allow their children to participate in what I was beginning to see as a dangerous, fringe sport. After a fierce game of soccer and a quick stretching session, it was time to suit up. The kids peppered me with questions.
“How old are you?” “Have you ever been ski jumping before?” “Are there going to be pictures of me in the newspaper?”
I tried my best to answer all of them. Through these fractured conversations, I also obtained some valuable information myself. I was informed that a mere three kids had had to go home so far, presumably due to injury. One girl told me that she was the “only” kid left from Connecticut—there was another, but he broke his collarbone during the previous day’s jumping session.
All these disturbing tidbits were imparted to me as I was preparing to go outside and tackle the same collarbone-destroying hill myself. Before doing so, I had to remove my clothes and step into the red-and-silver jumping suit I’d been issued, which felt like an oversize wetsuit made out of thick, soggy cardboard. Capped off with my black alpine ski helmet, I felt like an ungainly summer snowman.
A few of the kids immediately started hiking to the top of the hill, but I stopped in the middle of the slope, along with most of the other participants. Before flying off the jump, McCahill wanted me to glide down the landing hill a few times, starting at the flat area just beneath the take-off. That would allow me to get a feel for my equipment, and for the plastic surface that Lake Placid uses to replace snow during the summer.
I watched a handful of the kids slide down. It seemed pretty straightforward, although the hill still looked steep. I took my place at the top, jammed my boots into my bindings, and cautiously inched out over the crest. I was at the bottom, unscathed, before I knew it.
After two more quick runs without any trouble, I was starting to get a little more confident. But I still needed some more time to adjust to the equipment.
Wrong. When I got back up the top of the landing hill for the fourth time, McCahill told me to keep walking. It was time to hit the jump.
“Really?” I asked, hoping he was joking. My preference at this point was to take a few dozen more landing hill runs before lunch, then perhaps attempt a single jump in the afternoon session. If I was up to it.
“Oh yeah, you’re ready,” McCahill said.
McCahill did not appear to be kidding—he had already refocused his attention on a string of ten-year-olds as they flew through the air. Resigned, I put my head down and began hiking up the rest of the hill.
Summoning the Confidence
At the platform at the top of the hill, I was greeted by the half-dozen kids in line to take their own jumps. There were five different start positions, each with their own “bar”—a six-foot long section of two-by-four spanning the width of the tracks. Jumpers sit on the bar before pushing off and sliding down the in-run to the take-off.
McCahill had told me to start from the second position, almost at the bottom of the platform. Many of the kids were jumping from higher up, at four and five. I watched a handful of them. The majority flew through the air and landed smoothly—one confident boy in a cow-spotted suit even got his skis into the textbook V-style. A few lost their footing on the landing and spun their way to a stop on the grass below, but all of them quickly jumped up, dusted themselves off, and headed back up the hill.
As I watched the kids jump, I could see that there didn’t seem to be any life-threatening forces at work. The kids were sliding down no more than 50 feet of in-run, and they didn’t appear to be traveling more than 15 or 20 miles an hour when they reached the take-off—which was no more
than four feet off the ground. It looked close to fail-safe, but none of that mattered—it’s impossible to rationalize something as precipitous as ski jumping for the first time. All I could think about were broken legs and broken arms—frustratingly unimaginative injuries.
As I began the process of putting my skis on, I could feel myself tightening up. My heart was already pounding, and then, before I was ready, it was my turn. Matt Cook, another NYSEF coach and former elite ski jumper, put the bar in place for me. I leaned out and plopped my butt on the nearest edge, scooting cautiously out to the middle. The two-by-four felt more like a one-by-two, and I could feel it bending beneath me. And just like that—after a few e-mails to coordinate my visit, a three-hour drive, and twenty minutes of familiarizing myself with the gear—I was alone at the top of the in-run, and I no longer had a choice. Like it or not, I was about to begin my ski jumping career.
I looked at Cook, waiting for him to tell me that everything would be fine, that I wasn’t going to hurt myself. Instead, he tried to give me practical advice, saying something about keeping my weight centered over the middle of my feet. It was absolutely not what I was looking for; I wanted straight, dumb reassurance. But I didn’t get it.
When Cook finished talking, I waited for a grand total of five seconds. Then, I stood up. Working up the courage to take a ski jump isn’t at all like navigating a steep hill on alpine or cross-country skis—when you’re doing that, you have to renew your commitment each time you start a new turn. With ski jumping, you only have to summon your confidence once, and then you have no choice: There’s nothing you can do to stop yourself once you’ve started sliding.
McCahill captured the jump on video, which shows me assuming a highly conservative crouching stance as soon as I stand up. While there was a vague resemblance, this stance is not to be confused with what real jumpers call in-run position. This was holy-crap-I’m-about-to-go-flying position. I went sailing off the end of the jump without moving a muscle—the only parts of my body that budged before hitting the ground were my arms, which I threw
backwards to steady myself. I traveled roughly three meters—just over two percent of the distance that Swiss jumper Simon Ammann flew in his gold medal-winning jump in the large hill competition in the Vancouver Olympics—before touching down, upright. I stayed atop my skis for a few meters, then sat down as I reached the bottom of the landing hill. My skis splayed to the left as the plastic ran out, then slammed into the grass and dirt at the bottom, wrenching the back of my boots against my calves. I sat up to the sound of whistles and tiny hands clapping. For something that had made me so terrified, the experience was remarkably straightforward.
I took two more jumps that morning. The second was as scary as the first, but by the third jump, I was getting a little more steady. However, I had yet to actually jump—all I’d done was ride my skis through the take-off, too tense and focused to bother with even straightening my legs.
After my three jumps, we were already done with the morning session—which was fine with me. Imagine hiking uphill on a sunny summer day while wearing an extra-thick wetsuit and helmet, with skis in tow—that’s what I’d been doing for the past half-hour, and the activity had resulted in a level of perspiration that I never thought possible. Even after pulling down the zipper and letting the top half of the suit hang around my waist, I was still sweating buckets. By the end of the day, I had nearly soaked the suit through, and I would remain dehydrated for days.
It was only eleven, but I was already tired and beat up. The backs of my legs were sore from being slammed against my boots at the bottom of the landing hill, and I was covered in the dirt kicked up from my skis. We all headed inside and peeled off our suits, and the kids immediately moved on to a session on the giant trampolines used by the freestyle jumpers to practice. I was content to watch, and to chat with McCahill about NYSEF’s programs.
After a couple of hours for lunch, it was time to jump again. I pulled the suit on for a second time, and despite my hopes that might have dried off in the two hours that I left it in a heap on the floor, it hadn’t. It was sticky and clammy, which, as I was informed by assistant coach Tara Geraghty-Moates, is “part of summer jumping.” No matter—I would be hot and covered in sweat again in a few minutes, anyway.
The kids began the afternoon session by practicing telemark position while sliding down the landing hill. (Telemark landings are slightly more
stylish, and earn extra points in competitions.) McCahill told me not to worry about this just yet, instead recommending that I try to make my jumps a little more aggressive—at least, when I feel comfortable doing so. I head up the hill intent on jumping—not just riding through the take-off.
After hitting the jump a couple more times, I realized that I was not longer intimidated—and that I was actually starting to have fun. Despite the imposing look of the hill, the unwieldy skis and the sport’s reputation for inaccessibility, jumping was actually easy, and intuitive. By my fourth flight of the afternoon, I was practically sprinting my way back up to the top of the hill, rushing past kids lugging skis twice their size and refusing to even take the time to unzip my suit.
Despite the fact that I was now jockeying for position with them at the top of the hill, the kids were adding to my enjoyment. They seemed to have a full grasp of the scale of my endeavor—while they were unfailingly sympathetic and encouraging on my first few jumps, the kids also seemed to recognize the absurdity of a 23-year-old being a participant in their camp, and none of them hesitated to laugh or poke fun at me. But they also told me, in jumper’s vernacular, to “have one,” each time I sat on the bar and readied for take-off. One girl even offered me technique advice, suggesting that a lower in-run position would force me to make a more powerful jump. It worked.
After five attempts in the afternoon, I was finally starting to jump. I was gliding farther and farther down the hill each time (although still nowhere near as far as the best kids), and I’d figured out how to sit back on my skis and avoid toppling over as I approached the run-out.
My suit was soggy and my legs were sore from the backs of my boots, but I still had one more goal for the day: to reach the blue line that stretched across the landing hill roughly 15 meters from the take-off.
I was still jumping from the second start position, and I was getting close—my boots were coming down about even with the line on my fourth and fifth attempts of the afternoon. On my way back up the hill, I informed McCahill that I had to make it to the blue line by the end of the day.
“You know how to do that, don’t you?” he asked me. “If you start from five, I guarantee you that you’ll make it.”
That was not what I was hoping to hear from McCahill—I was under the impression that I wouldn’t have to stretch my comfort zone any further on this day. While I had been content for my jumping career to begin and end from the second start position, I was now faced with the challenge of starting 10 feet higher on the in-run.
I climbed up the hill to the platform and contemplated the view from the bar—it wasn’t hugely different. I gulped, stood up, and rode down the in-run to the take-off, jumping with the same conservative technique as I had on my first attempt of the day—barely budging my position until I’d landed. Predictably, this left me with an unimpressive result, still a couple of meters shy of the blue line.
“You didn’t think you’d actually have do anything to get there, did you?” McCahill teased me as I hiked past. “You still have to jump—and this is your last shot before the end of the day!”
Dirty and sweating, but still intent on hitting the blue line, I hiked up the hill and strapped on my skis one final time. At the take-off, I mustered just enough of an impulse to clear the blue line—or so I thought. I walked back up the hill to pick up my camera and ask McCahill if I’d made it.
“Blue meters!” he said. “Nice work!”
Triumphant, I returned to the lodge and pulled off the suit. With the quarter-inch of soggy foam no longer clinging to my body, I felt amazing. I stacked my skis against the wall alongside the rest of the NYSEF loaners, returned my boots, and hung up my suit. All told, I’d taken ten jumps, and probably flown no more than a cumulative 100 meters—still far shorter than Ammann’s gold-medal winning flight. But I already felt like a seasoned veteran, and I caught myself contemplating sticking around for another day of the camp. Jumping had been shockingly easy to learn—I spent no more than an hour in the morning getting used to my gear, and by the afternoon the fear factor had already worn off. A few days later, I was already plotting my return to Lake Placid for weekend jumping sessions, and scouring the internet for novice nordic combined competitions in the winter. It’s not too late for me to make a run for the 2014 Olympics, is it?
Interested in trying ski jumping or nordic combined? There are a large number of clubs with novice hills throughout the country, especially in the northeast, which welcome newcomers. For anyone already comfortable on a pair of cross-country skis, the basics can be learned in a session or two. Contact your nearest club for more information—the website SkiJumpEast.com has an extensive directory, as does SkiJumpingCentral.com.
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.