One year ago, Australian nordic combined didn’t even exist as a sport. But over the last few months, the country’s program has been gathering steam not just Down Under, but in both hemispheres.
Ben Sim, the cross-country skier attempting to make the crossover to nordic combined, has been making consistent progress on ski jumps in Lake Placid and Park City. And in Australia, officials at two ski resorts responded “favorably” to a visit from an American coach last month, to investigate potential sites for construction of the country’s own jumps.
In August, FasterSkier reported that the Australians, led by National Cross-Country Ski Team Coach Finn Marsland, were moving forward with an ambitious plan to bring nordic combined to the country.
With $40,000 in grant money from the International Ski Federation (FIS) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC)—and further funding at the margins from Ski Australia, the national governing body—the Australians are taking a two-pronged approach to the sport. While Sim is planning on spending the next four years learning to jump, and making a run at a berth in the 2014 Olympics in Sochi in nordic combined, Marsland is spearheading the construction of jumps and recruitment of youngsters back home.
Earlier this fall, Greg Poirier, a coach with the American nordic combined team, landed in Melbourne for a whirlwind visit. In the space of two days, Poirier met with officials from a pair of Australian ski resorts to pitch the idea of building of some small jumps, and he also gave a presentation on nordic combined to the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS).
According to Marsland, both resorts—Perisher Valley and Falls Creek—responded “quite favorably.”
“Greg was a great ambassador for the sport, and he was received very well,” Marsland said in an interview.
As far as actual earthmoving, the project’s goals are modest—at least initially. For the next Australian winter—that’s summer for northern hemisphere-dwellers—Poirier was pushing for the resorts to build a series of small jumps sculpted from snow, in sizes ranging from five to as large as 30 meters.
“We went in with the premise that we’re going to do really, really, low-impact—no construction. Anything we do, we’ll make with snow, or manmade snow,” Poirier said.
The plan is to set up the jumps for a few weeks at a time, giving kids an opportunity to test them out—perhaps with a coach present to run clinics and identify anyone with potential. Agreements haven’t been signed, and the details are still to be hammered out, but Marsland said that he was “optimistic” that there would be jumping in Australia next winter. The next step is still unclear, but Marsland is investigating the potential for building more
Meanwhile, Sim departed from Utah last week after completing his second stateside training stint, which included time in Park City and Lake Placid with the U.S. Nordic Combined Team. He’ll return to Park City in December, and he plans to spend most of the winter there, jumping three to four times a week. His cross-country career is taking a backseat to nordic combined—while Sim will still race at World Championships in Oslo, his competition schedule for the rest of the winter is limited.
Sim still has a long way to go before he is flying from the 90- and 120-meter jumps used in elite nordic combined competitions. But in an interview, he said that he was pleased with the progress he was making on the 40-meter hill in Park City and, especially, on the 48-meter in Lake Placid, where the thicker air closer to sea level let him experience more of a soaring sensation.
“I felt like it was a little more productive to jump in Lake Placid, because I could fly a little bit further,” he said.
After his second camp, Sim was starting to get a better grasp of the fundamentals of technique, which he said entails the disconcerting sensation of leaning forward and committing to each jump.
“It’s almost diving forward,” Sim said. “It took a couple of days to have the balls to do it—it’s definitely a new feeling.”
When Sim returns to Park City for the winter, he’ll move to a 60-meter hill there, and his goal by the end of January, he said, is to work up to the 90-meter. It’s a much faster progression than typical path taken by developing ski jumpers, but Sim said that he has to continue advancing in order to stay on track to make it to Sochi.
Sim plans to debut on the nordic combined Continental Cup circuit in the winter of 2011-2012, with the potential for a stop at the last World Cup of the season.
Another reason that Sim will have to stick to a tight schedule is financial: The grants from FIS and the IOC expire next year, and Marsland said that he hopes obtain further funding stemming from publicity garnered by Sim’s pursuits—including, potentially, support from the AIS, and Australia’s Olympic Winter Institute. But for that money to come through, Marsland said that Sim will have to do more than just finish—he’ll have to excel.
“[It’s] unlikely that funding will come to just establish sports for participation. It’s all about elite international results,” Marsland said. “Ben’s performances have got that double incentive of attracting funds to him[self] to be able to keep going, and also to be able to get the sport going as well.”
If there’s pressure, though, Sim doesn’t seem to be wilting under it. He said he has been enjoying his time in Park City and Lake Placid training with the Americans—one of the first times he’s had the opportunity to travel with athletes his own age.
The feelings appear to be mutual. Sim just acquired a hand-me-down jumping suit—and his first pair of jumping skis—courtesy of Olympic gold medalist Billy Demong.
“It’s nice to have other athletes to work with,” Sim said. “They enjoy skiing with me, and I enjoy skiing with them.”
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.