Neverending winter: Ski jumpers turn heads year-round

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Twelve-year-old Ben Berend speeds down Howelsen's porcelain in-run before taking flight off of the plastic covered K-68 ski jump.

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The new plastic covered ski jump at Howelsen Hill has allowed jumpers such as Taylor Fletcher to train more regularly in the summer.

It's big, it's green and it might seem a little out of place for someone not in touch with Steamboat Springs' long Nordic tradition.

But since it opened in summer 2006, the new plastic-covered, K-68 ski jump at Howelsen Hill has received a lot of attention. And that's not only from the jumpers and coaches who use it, but also from the tourists who visit Steamboat.

"Everyone can see it from town, and they are curious," said Todd Wilson, the Steamboat Springs Nordic director. "They come over and watch our kids train. The 'wow' factor makes it very attractive for people who are visiting Howelsen or just walking by on the (Yampa River) Core Trail."

The overriding purpose of the jump was to provide young athletes in Steamboat a year-round training opportunity. Officials thought building the jumps in Steamboat - long known as a center for U.S. ski jumping and Nordic combined training - would also help our community hold on to its skiing heritage, which seemed to be slipping away to places like the Olympic ski jumping facility in Park City, Utah.

But Wilson said the new plastic in Steamboat provided an opportunity to introduce a new group of people to the sport and added a new twist for locals who stopped by to watch a familiar sport take place during an unfamiliar season.

A large crowd of people showed up to watch the first Steamboat Ski Jump Extravaganza last summer. The event was so popular that the Winter Sports Club plans to host it again on the Fourth of July and will make it a part of the Club's annual Foundation party. The jumpers also will step into the spotlight as part of the Free Summer Concert Series at Howelsen. The jumpers will be on the hill from 5 to 6 p.m. before the start of the concerts July 27 and Aug. 8.

But that won't be the only time for people to watch the jumpers. Wilson said the Winter Sports Club's regular training sessions, which are from 8 to 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, have also drawn interest. Howelsen will be the sight of a U.S. Nordic Combined team mini-camp from Oct. 26 to 28.

When Howelsen Hill improved the 50-meter jump to a K-68 hill and added plastic, it doubled the months that young athletes could jump in Steamboat Springs. It was a huge boost to the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club and has attracted the national team and clubs from across the country.

"Howelsen is a very busy place in the summer," Wilson said. "There are a lot of people over here for Triple Crown or to ride the Alpine slide. They see us jumping and want to check it out."

The return on the investment after the jump's first winter has been impressive. The members of the Winter Sports Club's Nordic jumping programs enjoyed one of their best winters in recent memory, thanks in part to the new jump.

"We had stronger results at the Junior Olympic level and other major competitions," Wilson said. "It's like a cake. When it comes out really well, you can't just point to one ingredient. But I would say this facility is like the flour in a cake."

Steamboat Springs Nordic combined skier Taylor Fletcher, who won the North American Junior Championships and qualified for the World Junior Championships, is thrilled to have the jump available for summer training. It has cut down on the amount of time he has to travel each summer.

"It's had a tremendous impact on my results," Fletcher said. "I get more jumps in the summer, and I get them on a more regular schedule."

But Fletcher was quick to point out his new coach, Martin Bayer, and a shift in technique also have paid off.

"It's great to have all that attention," Fletcher said. "We don't always get it in our sport, so any time there is a crowd of people watching, it makes you want to fly just a little farther down the hill."

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