It's a rare community in the United States that counts a World Cup ski jumping facility among its city parks. In Steamboat, we have Howelsen Hill. It's the oldest continuously operated ski area in the West, and through the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club, it allows more than 900 local youngsters to strive to be the best competitive skiers they can become.
In summer 2006, the ski jumping season began, for the first time here, on an artificial surface, ushering in a new era at the legendary little ski area where Olympic dreams are born. A Fourth of July weekend ski jumping competition drew hundreds of enthusiastic spectators, many witnessing the sport for the first time.
Young ski jumpers and Nordic combined skiers need summer training to keep up with the international standard for excellence in the sport.
Once natural snow falls and is augmented by manmade snow, ski jumpers always are the first to get into action, with the older children sliding down a narrow ribbon of manmade snow on the normal hill and landing 60 to 70 meters down the slope. Before long, the patch of snow at the base of Howelsen has expanded enough to allow cross-country skiers to train on a 1-kilometer loop. Days later, the freestyle skiers have constructed an upright aerial jump, and Alpine skiers and snowboarders make repeated laps on a short slalom course. On the other side of the hill, snowmaking guns blast out enough snow to build the halfpipe.
Howelsen Hill is named after Norwegian ski jumping champion Carl Howelsen, who was lured to Steamboat in 1913. He taught the locals how to use skis for more than mere transportation during the interminable Yampa Valley winters. Howelsen built the first ski jumps in town and planted the seeds of the Winter Sports Club when he organized the first Steamboat Springs Winter Carnival in 1914. Today, proceeds from the Winter Carnival benefit the club.
For a long time, the local populace was crazy for ski jumping - there are historical accounts of local boys building ski jumps off the roofs of the sandstone and brick buildings that line the town's main street. They would land on ramps of snow in the alleys behind Lincoln Avenue.
It's also a plausible explanation for the fact that enrollment in the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club has topped 900 and continues to grow.
It's at Howelsen Hill that the Winter Sports Club trains not only future World Cup and Olympic ski jumpers, but also Olympic slalom and downhill racers, freestyle mogul skiers, snowboarders, cross-country skiers and Nordic combined athletes.
Carl Howelsen would be pleased to know that the youngest skiers in Steamboat still are drawn to the Nordic disciplines. The Little Vikings program is thriving with youngsters learning to cross-country ski and ski jump.
No fewer than a dozen U.S. athletes at the 2006 Winter Olympics held in Torino, Italy, had trained at the Winter Sports Club. Throughout the years, 60 Winter Olympians have trained with the Winter Sports Club. Some of those Olympians came to Steamboat for two years of work that catapulted them onto the national team; others grew up in the Yampa Valley, taking part in the Wednesday night ski jumping series.
Despite the club's proud Olympic heritage, Athletics Director Sarah Floyd said it would be a disservice to portray the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club as an organization with the sole mission of producing World Cup skiers. For most of its athletes, the benefits will include acquiring lifetime skills, an unshakeable work ethic and the self-reliance that comes from traveling the nation and world to compete.
The club is very careful about hiring coaches who are qualified to act as positive role models for children, she said.
People interested in the nonprofit club are invited to stop by its Howelsen Hill offices or call (970) 879-0695 for more information. The club's e-mail address is email@example.com, and the mailing address is SSWSC, P.O. Box 774487, Steamboat Springs, CO 80477.