Rub shoulders with future Olympians

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Max Gamber, passes a gate during the Winter Carnival Soda Pop Slalom at Steamboat Ski Area. Max earned a silver medal in the event with a time of 27.45 seconds. Nearly 300 children in fifth grade or younger participated in the race.

Snow tubing at Howelsen Hill

Winter Carnival visitors easily can join in Winter Carnival festivities nightly at Howelsen Hill's snow tubing facility. It's just across the Fifth Street Bridge over the Yampa River in downtown Steamboat Springs.

Tubing takes place from 4 to 7 p.m. seven nights a week for $18 an hour. Call 819-8010 to reserve a 4, 5 or 6 p.m. time slot.

If you've already fully embraced middle age, there's probably no chance you'll qualify for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. However, there's no reason you shouldn't rub shoulders with future Olympians at historic Howelsen Hill during this year's Winter Carnival in Steamboat Springs.

The future Olympians will be ski racing and ski jumping, snowboarding and throwing aerial maneuvers in the moguls. You'll be snow tubing right next to the World Cup ski jumps at the oldest ski area west of the Mississippi.

"Any day from 4 to 6 p.m. at Howelsen Hill, you see so many kids participating in so many outdoor adventures," said Sarah Floyd, athletics director for the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club, the nonprofit competitive skiing and snowboarding program that hosts Winter Carnival. Youngsters in the program dream of someday competing for the U.S. ski and snowboard teams - and they often realize those goals.

The Winter Sports Club has helped 65 athletes make 120 appearances in the Winter Olympics. Some of them grew up in Steamboat; others came here for several seasons to refine their talents.

Now, Floyd said, the new snow tubing facility is exposing many more Steamboat visitors to the club's up-and-coming athletes.

"It has been a fun offshoot of the tubing that we hadn't expected," she said. "People from all over the world are coming to Howelsen Hill to enjoy the tubing, and they're right next to the Alpine slalom run and the ski jump where athletes are training for the Junior Olympic qualifying races in the Rocky Mountain Division. It has been great exposure for the club."

The Winter Sports Club hires an elite coaching staff made up of numerous former Olympic and World Cup athletes and uses the Howelsen Hill facilities to introduce youngsters to competition in Alpine, Nordic, freestyle, snowboarding, biathlon and telemark skiing programs. This season, 1,120 children and teens are taking part in the club.

The tradition here goes back to 1913, when Carl Howelsen showed locals how to use skis for more than mere transportation during the long 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.

Despite the club's proud Olympic heritage, Floyd said it would be a disservice to portray the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club as an organization with the sole mission of producing Olympic skiers and snowboarders. For most of its athletes, the benefits include acquiring lifetime skills, an unshakable 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 sswsc@sswsc.org, and the mailing address is SSWSC, P.O. Box 774487, Steamboat Springs, CO 80477.

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