Tom Ross: What would Carl Howelsen and Ragnar Omtvedt say?

All-season ski jumping creates a new buzz at Howelsen Hill

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Davis Miller acknowledged he was feeling a little pressure the morning of Oct. 15 as he prepared to make the first jump on Howelsen Hill's new HS 75-meter all-weather ski jump.

The new jumping hill is far from the biggest he has tackled. And it wasn't a competition day. So, there wasn't any real reason to feel anxious. Nope, it was just another glorious October morning at the little ski hill in Steamboat Springs.

Still, there was a buzz among the roughly 40 people who showed up to witness the historic first jump on the hill that allows ski jumping all year 'round. They understood that the morning would usher in a new era at a place that is so rich in skiing lore.

Miller understood it, as well. First, there was that bit of the unknown about launching into space on a ski jump that no one had ridden before. And then there was the added pressure of making this history-making jump a credible jump.

"It shouldn't be too different," he said. "I just want to kick it off with a longer jump. I'm going to make sure I go past 70 meters."

Miller needn't have worried. The little crowd yelled its approval as he came rushing over the knoll on that first jump and pressed his skis well past the red line that denoted 68 meters and the "critical" point on the landing hill where it begins to make the transition to flat.

His skis made a loud "thwack" as he touched down on the green plastic surface and skidded into the wet sod beyond.

Soon, in quick succession, a dozen young ski jumpers completed the baptism of the new ski jump. Their successful jumps represent the culmination of many hours of work by volunteers, construction workers, fundraisers, city employees and coaches at the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club.

I had to ask myself, "What would the old-timers say?" What would ski jumping champions such as Ragnar Omtvedt, Anders and Lars Haugen, John Steele, Gordon Wren, Crosby Perry-Smith, Ansten Samulstuen and Carl Howelsen have to say about taking a winter sport and moving it from snow onto plastic? There is nothing new about summer ski jumping on hills covered with a plastic surface that vaguely resembles a thatch of over overlapping palm fronds.

Todd Wilson, Nordic program director for the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club, first began jumping on plastic in Lake Placid, N.Y., when he was 16 years old. For a couple of decades, Steamboat youngsters have flown off to jumping camps in the summer or made the six-hour drive to Park City, Utah, to get in summer training.

Wilson said the Steamboat ski-jumping community was faced with two choices. It could build a new plastic jump, or it could allow Howelsen Hill's tradition of producing champion jumpers gradually fall by the wayside.

"Would Tiger Woods be the champion he is if he'd only played golf six months of the year?" Wilson asked. "There's no guarantee we'll produce more Olympians because of this jump. But our odds just increased by a thousand times."

If anyone has witnessed the unfolding of modern ski jumping history at Howelsen Hill, it is John Fetcher, and you can bet the 93-year-old was on hand to witness the jumping Saturday. Fetcher spearheaded the fundraising and construction of a million dollar reconstruction of Howelsen's jumps in the mid-1970s, and he helped with the engineering of the new HS 75, as well.

Fetcher professed surprisingly conflicted feelings about the arrival of the new four-season ski jump.

"This is a great day, but I have mixed emotions," Fetcher said. "I'm sort of mad at the Europeans for making it necessary. This is really a winter sport."

Fetcher's concern is this: he thinks youngsters should not be pushed to specialize in one sport. Instead, they should feel free to play different sports in different seasons.

Wilson acknowledges Fetcher's point.

"We have talks about that all the time as a coaching staff," he said.

But competition is the way of the world.

"If a kid comes to us and says, 'I want to get better,' we tell them to spend more time over here."

So what would Carl Howelsen say about all this? I've got to think the great Norwegian jumper who introduced Steamboat to the sport in 1914 would have aproved.

After all, he joined the "greatest show on Earth" in 1906. Howelsen demonstrated ski jumping from a 100-foot ramp greased with Vaseline under the big top in the Barnum and Bailey Circus. Yep, if he could return to Steamboat today, the late great Howelsen would be up there with the youths, ski jumping in the warm October sun.

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