John F. Russell: Jumping returns with thrills

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John Russell

John Russell's sports column appears Sundays in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 871-4209 or email jrussell@SteamboatToday.com.

Find more columns by John here.

— Willy Graves’ smile stretched from one ear to the other after he landed at the bottom of Howelsen Hill’s big jump Friday afternoon.

“This is totally like Christ­mas morning,” Graves said with no attempt to hide his excitement about getting to ride the “big hill” at Howelsen.

The joy the longtime Nordic athlete was enjoying on the first day of jumping in Steamboat Springs happens every year. He shared it with a few other jumpers who were training, the coaches at the top of the hill who have been working hard to get the jumps open this winter and the dozens of people who stood at the bottom of Howelsen Hill watching all the action unfold.

As Graves talked about the sport, I couldn’t help but wonder what it is about ski jumping that seems to capture our attention.

I still remember tuning in to ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” as a child and hoping that ski jumping was going to be a part of the episode that aired that day. Back then, I had no idea how ski jumping was scored or even what it took for an athlete to win a competition. Truth is, like most Americans, I didn’t care.

I just wanted to watch an athlete push off the bar, race off the jump and then ride a cushion of air to the bottom of the hill. I didn’t know the athletes personally back then, but in my mind, they were in the same league as Evel Knievel — only these guys didn’t jump over school buses.

I hate to admit it, but until I came to Steamboat Springs in 1990, my only connection to the sport of ski jumping was through television.

I’ve watched hundreds of jumpers take flight at Howelsen, I’ve watched round after round of Rocky Mountain Division meets, and I’ve taken in lots of National Championships. I’m happy to say that I’ve been lucky enough to attend more than a few World Cup events.

The sport is just as interesting today as it was the first time I watched a ski jumper push off the bar on “Wide World of Sports” 30 years ago.

Let’s face it: Jumping has that wow factor that grabs our interest even if we don’t understand the sport. People wonder what goes through ski jumpers’ heads once they’ve left the jump and how they keep their heart pumping as they slice through the air like a rocket. We would all like to try it, but the truth is, most of us will never take the chance. Instead, we watch from a distance and admire the athletes who have the guts and the skill.

It’s that interest that fuels most extreme sports, and it’s the desire to live through these athletes that continues to capture our attention.

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