Ski jumpers don’t usually begin their careers at age 25. Nor do they progress from their first-ever jump all the way up to an Olympic-sized 90-meter hill in the course of one year. But that’s exactly what Australian cross-country skier Ben Sim is trying to do.
There aren’t many athletes out there who have taken an approach like Sim’s and met with much success. But in the U.S., there’s one: Matt Dayton, who took up ski jumping at age 19. After graduating high school, Dayton moved from his home in Breckenridge, Colorado, to the ski jumping hotbed of Steamboat Springs, working his way up to the 90-meter hill in less than a year. Eventually, he raced on the American nordic combined squad that placed fourth in the team event at the 2002 Olympics. We caught up with Dayton to talk about his unique path to the sport, his racing career, and the concussions that helped end it.
FasterSkier: Can you tell me how you got started in nordic combined?
Matt Dayton: I grew up next door to Pat Ahern, in Breckenridge, who was on the  Sarajevo Olympic team for nordic combined. I grew up watching him do the ski jumping, and it looked like something that I wanted to do. But we didn’t have a jump in our area—the closest one was Steamboat [Springs]. So I kind of put that off, and after graduating high school, I decided that it was something that I really wanted to give a try. So, I moved out to Steamboat and started taking classes out there at the CMC [Colorado Mountain College].
I went ahead and enrolled in their winter sports club program under Todd Wilson and Gary Crawford, and just got started doing the landing hill, getting used to the equipment. They built a little bump jump for me, and I just went off that for a while, and then progressed up to the 30-meter jump. It was interesting, because I was 19 years old, so here I am, standing at the top of the 30-meter jump with a bunch of nine-year-olds, towering over them, and they all probably had a lot less fear than I did.
I got going on the 30-meter, moved up to the 50-meter after a while, and things progressed really well. By the end of the season I was going off the big [90-meter] hill. I just took to it really well.
FS: You were already a fairly good cross-country skier at that point, right?
MD: Yeah—you know, I did pretty well on the Junior National level, and of course on the state racing level, and stuff like that. I hadn’t gotten into any development team, as far as cross-country goes, or anything like that. But I had good results on the junior standings.
FS: So, what was your approach like at that point? You just thought it looked like fun, and you wanted to see how far you could take it?
MD: I didn’t really look at it so much as a means to an end, I don’t think. Like a lot of kids growing up, I had that Olympic dream, and that was certainly something that I wanted to do, but the jumping to me just looked like a lot of fun. More than anything, I just wanted to ski jump. And then from there, I was progressing well at the jumping; I was a faster cross-country skier than most of the junior skiers at that time—of course, I was older.
Johnny Spillane, Bill Demong, and Carl Van Loan—there was a good handful of junior athletes that were nordic combined skiers. They were leaps and bounds ahead of me in the jumping. But I was a lot faster in the cross-country skiing, and so I think they saw my potential as a jumper, but they also saw me as somebody that maybe could help bring the level of the group up in cross-country. They brought me onto what was basically a junior-development type team—for lack of a better name, [Coach] Tom Steitz called us “the Blob.” So, the Blob started, and I think there were six or seven of us junior skiers, and that group of guys, for the most part, became the U.S. Nordic Combined Team.
FS: Were the coaches open to the idea of you joining the program? Or were they pretty skeptical that you could actually do much, starting at your age?
MD: People were open to the idea. Nobody discouraged me. I think that most people probably thought that it’s kind of silly to start that late—certainly, very untraditional to go about it that route. But despite what they might have felt on the inside, I was always really encouraged. All the coaches at the winter sports club—they were really encouraging to me, and it was cool to get to surprise them by doing well at it. But I never heard any negative talk.
FS: Do you feel like you have some specific qualities that allowed you to make the progression more quickly than most people?
MD: I always grew up loving to catch air. I loved jumping on skis. And I think that natural desire helped play a role. And the no-fear—well, I wouldn’t say no-fear attitude—but the less-fear-than-healthy attitude probably helped out some. I was just really excited about the jumping—I spent a lot of extra time on my own trying to do the technique drills that they were teaching me. That definitely helped, as well.
FS: Having talked with Ben, it sounds like that’s the hard part—jumping with proper technique, rather than just throwing yourself down the hill. Did you ever feel like you got ahead of yourself, in terms of the size of the hill being appropriate for your level of technique?
MD: You know, I had my fair share of falls. There was no question about that. So, in that sense, yeah—I probably in some ways got ahead of myself. I guess it would be some of that back-up instinct that you need to rely on if you get in a tricky situation—maybe it wasn’t as honed in as kids that had been jumping since they were nine years old.
FS: So, can you talk about the way that your career unfolded? You had some results on the World Cup, and you made it to the 2002 Olympics?
MD: I was 18th in the individual, and then I was fourth in the team event. And then, my best World Cup finish was fifth.
FS: Did you finish your career feeling like, ‘man, I wished I’d started jumping when I was ten?’ Or did you feel like you got to the point where it wasn’t holding you back any more?
MD: No, I definitely think that I would have benefited from starting earlier. In most cases, on the World Cup circuit, I was skiing from the back part of the pack. [In nordic combined competitions, the jumping round is held first, and it dictates the order for the cross-country ski race that follows.] I think my best jumping results, I was into the low teens or mid-teens. I think I was like 16th after the jumping when I skied to fifth in [a World Cup in] Steamboat, and I think that was probably my best jumping result. Part of that was the grace of God gave me some good air going down the hill, you know? It was just one of those magical days, where everything just came together for me. Had I been able to have a little better position starting after the jumping in the cross-country races, I think that I could have been able to ski into the top-10 on a consistent basis. But when you’re starting three minutes, four minutes back, it’s very difficult. So, I think that would have behooved me quite a bit to start younger.
FS: But your stopping point wasn’t because of your age, was it? You probably could have kept racing if you had wanted to, right?
MD: Yeah, I definitely could have. There were a few factors that played into that. Probably one of the largest factors was that I had suffered more than my fair share of concussions over my jumping career. Like I was telling you earlier, you get into difficult situations, or unexpected things happen, and a lot of those guys who have started earlier have the instinct to fall back on. Whereas a guy like Johnny Spillane—I never saw him fall. He hardly ever fell. I didn’t fall a lot, but I did fall some, and when you’re going really fast and you catch an edge, or whatever, things happen really quickly. I had some concussions, the worst of which [was when] I had two in the course of four days in November leading up to the Olympics. And that took me out of jumping for an entire month, and almost a full World Cup period.
So, basically, having those concussions—and the risk that having more would cause long-term, damaging effects—that was something that was considered, as far as my family. I was engaged at the time, so that also played a factor. And being on the road a lot—you’re constantly traveling, you’re constantly gone from family. I was ready to just get a change of pace, get on with my education, start working towards a career.
FS: If you had decided to continue on for a few more years, do you think you could have gotten your jumping to the point where you were towards the top of the field? If you were able to get fifth in a World Cup, it must not have been holding you back too much.
MD: I definitely think about where it might have gone, and what I could’ve done with it—and there’s just no telling. Jumping is such an interesting beast: There’s guys that just never seem to get past a certain point, and then there’s guys that will be hitting that glass ceiling for so long, and all of a sudden they’ll break through, and they’re number one. So, there’s really no telling what might have happened. It could have gone in any direction, really.
FS: What do you do now?
MD: My family and I run nordic centers and snowshoe centers in Breckenridge and Frisco, Colorado. We’ve got the trail systems there, and we do lessons and rentals and equipment, and all that.
FS: Do you still jump?
MD: No, I haven’t jumped since March, 2002. I’ve had dreams of putting ’em back on and getting back up there. And some people do—I know some people that do later in life—but I don’t know if I ever will. Maybe a small hill.
FS: One last question: Do you have any advice for Ben Sim, having blazed a similar path to the one that he’s setting out on?
MD: Two things: flexibility and repetition. Just repeating any of the dryland training, going through the motions just over and over and over again, to get your body to learn that motion so that when you are on the hill, your body will do it. Those would be, probably, the two main things that seemed to help me.
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.