The Joy of Flight

Learning to Ski Jump
By Mitch Kaplan, illustration by Jim Gregory

I try to focus. Clear my head. But that disturbing image keeps popping to mind. You've seen the clip. It was made famous on ABC's Wide World of Sports: The skier launches from a jump, teeters precariously in mid air, and then crashes to the ground in a flurry of skis, snow, and cartwheeling limbs. For a generation this event symbolized "the agony of defeat," and now, poised above a large ski jump, I feel a strange affinity for that poor anonymous skier.

"That sequence did more damage to the sport of ski jumping than you can imagine," says John Bower. "The truth is, ski jumping's just not that dangerous."

That's easy for Bower to say. A former Olympic jumper, he's now in charge of the Olympic Park in Park City, Utah; site of the jumping competitions for the 2002 Winter Olympiad. The state-of-the-art facility—a 387-acre reserve set in a canyon about four miles north of town—is also where I'm being introduced to the sport. I'm here, along with a handful of ten and twelve year-olds, to experience the thrill of flight.

They call the program Public Ski Jumping, and anyone who can downhill ski at an intermediate level or better is invited to join. You use your own skis and boots; the Park rents helmets. "In two hours, we have beginners jumping off the 18-meter jump," Bower assures me. I'm unimpressed. The jumping looks easy—landing is what has me worried.

Some perspective for those of you unfamiliar with the jargon: Olympic jumps measure 90 and 120 meters. The size is determined by the distance from the take-off point to where the landing slope flattens. An 18-meter ramp is a mere one-fifth Olympic size. Doesn't sound so daunting, does it?

Not until you're actually looking down on one. Eighteen meters is seventy-six feet. That's plenty of room for things to go haywire. Add to that a thirty mile-an-hour launch speed and it's easy to see how defeat could catch you unaware.

As you'd expect, we can't run before we walk, so at the lodge we begin our day by practicing the proper stance before we even step into our bindings. The position is a familiar one: We bend at the knees and waist, press the shoulders down, keep the head up, the torso parallel to the ground, and extend the arms straight backward. As I contort myself into this position, I can visualize ski jumpers on the television, captured for an intolerably long moment as they sail through the air like human missiles. For the first time I feel the part. Hold that form and flight should follow naturally.

Outside, the kids and I put on our skis and helmets, and sidestep some fifty yards uphill. (That I'm jumping with kids is serendipity; they were scheduled as a group. Had I been here yesterday, I would have jumped with insurance executives.) Our instructor, Chris, warm us up with three moderately-sized snow bumps. "Assume the stance," he says, "and just ride over the first two bumps. When you hit the third one, spring up with your knees and lean forward." The kids giggle but I fail to see the humor. Even though I've skied much steeper slopes, agony on these bumps seems well within reach.

On my first try, I forget to jump the last bump. On the second run I jump, but lead with my shoulders and don't get much air. On the third try the timing is right and—whoa!—I soar!

Next, we ride a tow lift halfway up the slope. We disembark and ski past the 10-meter beginner's jump to gather at the 38-meter take-off spot. We will now practice, Chris informs us, "speed acceptance." One at a time, we assume the in-run position, point our skis straight down the 38-meter landing hill, and steam full ahead, making no effort to check our speed. The one hitch: no launching involved. We're just learning to go at warp speed so we'll be ready—and able—to launch when it's really time to jump.

Speed accepted, we're ready to get some real air. Of course the 10-meter ramp is just a fraction of the size the Olympians use, but to us neophytes it is imposing nonetheless. We take turns psyching ourselves up and plunging down the hill. Once again, my first two attempts are shaky, but I manage to avoid a wipe out. On my third try push off hard on the lip and sail through the air. Truth is, we're not getting that far off the ground or traveling more than a few meters, but sensation is extended flight. Peter Pan would know the feeling.

Once we've had our fill of the 10-meter jump, Chris decides who's ready for the 18. To my surprise, I'm selected for that dubious honor. We ski to the take-off spot and line up on the ramp. As my turn approaches I watch the jagged Wasatch Range turn purple in the last rays of sunset. I think of my family, friends, and others who have made my life so memorable. I do whatever it takes to keep the agony of defeat man from cartwheeling through my vivid imagination.

Finally my turn arrives. I feel strangely confident. Finally at peace. I take a deep breath and move forward. I watch the take-off point as I gather speed. Faster. Fueled by sheer adrenaline. And then I'm airborne! Assuming the position. Sailing for a short eternity and touching down like a pro. No tragedy. No agony. Just the unmistakable thrill of victory.

Public jumping at the Utah Winter Sports Park is $20 for adults, $12 for children 12 to 17, and $8 for children under 11. Helmet rental is $5. Bring your own ski equipment, or rent it from a local shop. For more information, call 801-649-5447.

Mitch Kaplan is a New Jersey-based writer who covers action sports, family travel, fitness, and business topics. His work has appeared in Skiing, Snow Country, Family Circle, and numerous other publications. He wrote The Weekend Athlete's Injury Guide and co-wrote The Summer Garden Cookbook (Berkeley Books). His 52 New Jersey Weekends is available from Country Roads Press ($14.95). The father of two teenagers, Kaplan often writes about his family's travel adventures.

Jim Gregory lives and works in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and exists to ski and live the mountain experience. He and his wife Liz own and operate NJG Design, a graphic design studio. Jim cartoons and illustrates in his spare time to help relieve the tension of everyday life. He is a graduate of Syracuse University and has been skiing since he was eleven. Jim is a member of the Eastern Ski Writers Association and the North American Ski Journalists Association.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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