Steamboat Springs The day seemed perfect for Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club Nordic director Todd Wilson. The June sun had started to warm the crisp morning air Friday as skier after skier flew past him, barreling down the all-weather porcelain ski jump at Howelsen Hill to launch high above a brilliantly green downtown Steamboat Springs.
U.S. Ski Team coaches watched and offered advice as some of the best Nordic athletes in the world trudged uphill, skis over one shoulder and ski suits stripped to the waist to help alleviate the sweat of hard work.
It was exactly what the massive plastic hill was built for, Wilson said.
It was exactly what he hoped Steamboat's trademark ski jumps would become.
But even the success the facility's K-68 12-month ski jump has been wasn't enough to keep the director from dreaming.
"Oh, we're not done," Wilson said, turning his back on the ongoing training to face Howelsen's larger, winter-only jumps. "Ideally we'll have plastic on all of our jumps."
Wilson didn't have to close his eyes and dream of future projects to take pleasure out of Friday's practices.
The plastic ski hill at Howelsen has proven to be a success since it was originally completed more than two years ago. Steamboat was in desperate need of an upgrade to its facilities at the time, Wilson said, and the K-68 hill was a huge step in keeping Ski Town USA up with the Joneses - the Joneses in this case being Park City, Utah.
Steamboat was hemorrhaging top-level athletes when Park City's state-of-the-art jumps were built ahead of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics. U.S. Ski Team members had no choice and lived and trained in Park City, but the fear existed that even premier athletes not on the U.S. squad would choose to move to Utah to jump on the facility's many plastic-coated, summer-accessible jumps.
That's one reason Wilson, the SSWSC, the city of Steamboat Springs and hundreds of volunteers and donators rallied to turn the local K-50 jump hill into a world-class K-68 plastic beast.
"It's not the only reason, but it was a big one," Wilson said. "We were literally competing in a sport where we didn't have a facility six months of the year. The fact that we were even semi-competitive was amazing. Now, three full summers into this, we're dominant in all levels."
The project took more than a year to complete and was financed largely by $2.5 million dollars collected through grants and donations. Volunteers flocked to the hill in the fall of 2005 to put on the finishing touches, and ever since, Steamboat has reaped the benefits.
World-class athletes swarmed the green plastic mat at the bottom of the hill all week. Coach Kjell Ivar Magnusson and his U.S. Women's jumping team took flight, as did men's Nordic Combined World Cup squad.
"So far, so good. I've been happy," U.S. Nordic Combined World Cup-B coach Chris Gilbertson said of the week of Steamboat training. "The week started out a little rough, but as it has gone on, the guys have gotten their ski legs back. They're looking better and better."
Every hill unique
Steamboat still lags behind Park City, where every hill, big and small, is available for summer work. But the K-68 hill has earned Howelsen a stop on nearly every club and team's training routine.
Several things keep them coming back. For one, Steamboat's still home to many of the nation's top competitors and returning home to train - even if on a smaller hill than is available in Utah - is worth something. Plus, Wilson said, the opportunity to work off a different hill is priceless.
"It's just like golf. You don't play the same course all the time in golf," he said. "Every hill really is different, so when you go to another venue, it's hard to adapt. The challenge when competing in Europe is they only get one or two training jumps because of the global warming conditions. Once they get a hill ready, it won't stay ready, so there's no time to adapt.
"Others want to train here because every hill is different, and it helps them learn to adapt more quickly."
It was hoped that by turning one of the smaller hills plastic first, both expert and new jumpers could find use in it. Wilson said about 30 of the 100 SSWSC jumpers are skilled enough to take advantage of the K-68 jump. Many clubs were right there with the U.S. Ski Team members Friday, sliding down the shimmering white slide and soaring onto the shaggy green landing zone below.
Others, meanwhile, skipped the leap and just fine-tuned their slide, starting at the top of the green carpet.
From Olympians to 11-year-olds, it was helping them all.
Wilson gazed at the rickety, snowless skeleton of Steamboat's monster K-114, and he pointed out the smaller jumps that appeared nothing more than grassy mounds on a June morning. Even as he dreamed about what might someday be one of the finest jumping facilities in the world, he watched a dream from 10 years ago take place before his eyes, one jump at a time.
"It's successful. It's helping us," Wilson said. "It's helping the national teams, and it's helping the local kids, and it's been great for us."
- To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 871-4253 or e-mail email@example.com