Brendan Doran was only 10 years old when he made a decision that would change his life.
It wasn't a decision about where to go to college or which career path to follow. Doran simply decided to hang out with some friends one night at Steamboat Springs' long-running Wednesday Night Jump Series.
"It was a life-changing experience," Doran said about the Hitchens Brothers' Wednesday Night Jump Series. "I did it because I had a couple of friends who were doing it. ... It sounded like fun, so I decided to give jumping a try."
Less than two weeks later, Doran had begun his journey down a path that would take him from Alpine skiing -- which he had been pursuing -- into the world of ski jumping.
Eventually, Doran made the U.S. Special Jumping Team, on which he spent eight years. Ski jumping also led Doran to the Olympics in Nagano, Japan, and in Salt Lake City.
"My favorite thing about the Wednesday Night Jump Series was just being out under the lights and in the snow at Howelsen Hill," Doran said.
The Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club has grown a lot since Doran's early jumping days. But you still can find him under the lights at Howelsen Hill this winter. He won't compete in the 2006 Hitchens Brothers' Wednesday Night Jump Series -- he retired from competitive ski jumping in 2002. But he will coach -- and hopefully inspire the hundreds of young athletes who come out for pizza, cookies and a chance to continue Steamboat's ski-jumping legacy.
It's the type of story that brings a smile to the face of 83-year-old Melvin Hitchens, who has sponsored the Wednesday Night Jump Series for more than 15 years.
"I'm a ski jumper, and I spent a great deal of my life at Howelsen Hill," Hitchens said. "I was also able to earn a little bit of extra money in my life, so I decided to sponsor the jump series to keep the sport going. I want to see the series continue forever."
Thanks in part to Hitchens' generosity, the series is not only going but growing.
Four times this winter, Steamboat's future Olympians will show up at Howelsen in Nordic or Alpine gear to compete on the jumps.
Their rewards will be a slice of pizza, cookies and -- if they jump well enough -- a ribbon.
But Doran, Hitchens and the series' many volunteers hope the series will provide a positive experience.
"I think the kids do it because it's a lot of fun," said Hans Berend, who is running the show this season. "The best part for me is getting to know the young athletes in Steamboat."
The annual series opens tonight with the first of four events at historic Howelsen Hill in the heart of downtown Steamboat. There also will be competitions Jan. 25, Feb. 15 and March 15.
The jumping is free for competitors thanks to Hitchens' continuing support. The events are open to Alpine and Nordic skiers younger than 13 and regardless of experience.
They will compete on the K-18, K-25 and K-38 jumps depending on their age and ability. The Little Vikings jump from 5 to 6 p.m. on the bump jump. Results are not kept, and every competitor takes home a ribbon.
The rest of the competitors will jump on the K-18, K-25 and K-38 jumps starting at 6 p.m.
The event ends between 8:30 and 9 p.m. with a post-event awards ceremony.
Competitors are required to register from 4:45 to 5:30 p.m. at Olympian Hall. The athletes are not required to be members of the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club, but they must sign a waiver if they are not.
Nordic Director Todd Wilson said the Wednesday Night Jump Series is important to his program because it introduces many of his athletes and their parents to competition.
"It's a training ground for the athletes, but it's also a way to train parents to do the things necessary to host jumping competitions in the future," Wilson said. "It's where parents learn to mark, learn to judge and learn what it takes to put on a successful jumping meet."
For Hitchens, the series is a way to keep ski jumping alive in a community he loves.
-- To reach John F. Russell, call 871-4209 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org