John Russell's sports column appears Sundays in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 871-4209 or email jrussell@SteamboatToday.com.
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Steamboat Springs Alan Johnson may be a little too old to strap on a pair of jumping skis and go head to head with international stars like Adam Malysz or Simon Ammann.
But he’s not about to let that keep him from trying to make sure our country is represented at the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver, British Columbia, and beyond.
Johnson has helped organize and support the sport of ski jumping the past three years through a 501(c)(3) called Ski Jumping Development USA. The group, which hired Jochen Danneberg as coach, has a few young jumpers on the team, which is not funded by, and is not a part of, the U.S. Ski Team.
The group is funded through private donations, with about 70 percent of its budget coming from a former U.S. Ski Team jumper who prefers to remain anonymous. The jumpers hope to represent the United States early next year, but if they reach their goal, they have only themselves, and their supporters, to thank.
The latest generation of American ski jumpers will not have to pay for their Olympic trip out of their own pocket (that’s covered by the U.S. Olympic Committee) if they qualify, but they will have to get there first. Three years ago, the U.S. Ski Team stopped supporting the team financially, and the young athletes and their parents have been footing the bill to keep ski jumping alive in our country.
“I kind of saw it coming a few months before it was announced,” said Johnson, whose son Anders is a top American prospect. “I could have sat back and thrown in the towel, but I decided to figure out what we needed and then find a way to make it happen.”
Johnson said the program operates on a budget in the neighborhood of $130,000 a year. The program competes against nationally supported programs that have budgets ranging into the millions. The ski jumpers in the program pick up their own air, room, and equipment expenses. Johnson said he would love to see the program double its budget in order to hire an additional coach and cover some of the skiers’ expenses.
The good news is that three of the program’s skiers scored World Cup points (the first time that’s happened since 1986), and Johnson is hoping four will qualify to compete in Vancouver.
“Our biggest challenge is to support these athletes as they continue to improve,” Johnson said. “We need to improve their training program and opportunities and at least cover their competition expenses if they are going to continue on in the sport.”
In today’s ultracompetitive world, it’s hard to blame the U.S. Ski Team for investing in sports with a proven record of success and the promise of a medal. But thanks to the efforts of people like Johnson, the sport of ski jumping in the United States still has a heartbeat — even if it’s hard to hear at times.