John Russell's sports column appears Mondays in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 871-4209 or email jrussell@SteamboatToday.com.
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Steamboat Springs The temperature Friday morning was 53 degrees and climbing fast. In the distance, the sound of baseballs colliding with aluminum bats was a constant reminder that it’s summer at Howelsen Hill.
It’s not exactly the kind of place where you would expect to find a group of athletes pursuing the sports of ski jumping and Nordic combined — but those sports are no longer limited to the winter months.
“The summer is where you learn to be a better jumper. The winter is where you show off what you’ve learned,” Nordic combined skier Cliff Field said Friday between training jumps on the K-68 hill. Field is one of America’s top young Nordic combined prospects and hopes to build the skills he needs to move up the U.S. Ski Team ladder this summer in places like Steamboat Springs.
It’s a goal he shares with a van full of young jumpers, who had been on the hill since 8 a.m. trying to find the rhythm they hope will propel them to the highest levels of their sport.
The jumpers can be found there Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday mornings. They also train late in the afternoon. The schedule is designed to avoid the midday heat — something you might not expect ski jumpers to deal with. But this is a new era.
On this day, the sky was filled with mosquitoes instead of snow, and there were cheers from a group of Triple Crown Sports baseball players who had taken a few minutes from the game to check out the action on the jump hill.
Coach Martin Bayer, who grew up in the Czech Republic, said summer jumping is nothing new. But in today’s competitive world, it is a must for elite athletes.
“I started jumping year-round when I was 7 years old,” Bayer said. “In Europe, that is the norm.”
But in the United States, the number of plastic-covered venues limits the opportunities for summer jumping. Bayer says that is a problem. He said the Americans are at a disadvantage because they have far fewer hills to pick from than their European competition. Bayer dreams of the day when the opportunities for American jumpers become more widespread.
Lucky for Bayer, a group in Steamboat Springs is already looking into the feasibility of expanding those opportunities and covering a K-40 jump at Howelsen with plastic. That would allow younger jumpers who are not ready for the bigger hill to continue to grow in the summer months. Supporters say it would allow local jumpers to stay closer to home, fill a gap in the chain of development and continue to fuel Steamboat’s Olympic heritage.
It would not be cheap, but it’s a great idea in a town where you expect to find young athletes pursing Olympic glory in the winter — and the summer.