The 2010 Olympics saw a death in the luge, several impressive crashes in the men’s and women’s alpine events, and a concussion or two in the bobsled. Yet when people think of one winter sport to equate with danger, it’s usually ski jumping.
It’s easy to view ski jumping as more spectacle than sport, but seven public high schools in New Hampshire currently shun that perception, fielding ski jumping teams that, together, like Voltron, form the only interscholastic or intercollegiate ski jumping league anywhere in America. While other winter sports — ski and snowboard cross, halfpipe, freestyle skiing aerials, skeleton — have gained purchase by being “extreme,” ski jumpers here are trying to cultivate interest in their own sport by making it seem as normal as possible.
On a still, snow-covered night in the middle of January, a few dozen cars line the shoulders of a short stretch of the Kancamagus Highway near Conway, New Hampshire. Just in from the road, people huddle around a bonfire that often gets too hot to stand near; it’s manned by pyrotechnic teenage boys who toss wooden palettes on top to make it rage. A pair of parents are focused on cooking up free burgers for the crowd; hot chocolate is also available.
It’s jump night in New Hampshire, and all seven teams — Concord, Hanover, Hopkinton, John Stark, Kennett, Plymouth, and Sunapee — have gathered to compete in one of six weekly meets leading up to the state championships. 62 students are jumping at this meet, where the 45th anniversary of the site was marked with a brief speech from atop a snowbank. A sizable and enthusiastic crowd — 100 or so, maybe more — of students from Kennett, the host school, and parents, gasps and cheers as the first kids launch themselves with varying degrees of confidence into the air. One reason it looks particularly impressive here is the viewing angle. From below, we can’t see much of the 30-meter inrun, where the jumper tucks down, gathering speed; we just see him (or her — more on that in a minute) explode from the takeoff. Some come off stiffly and coltish, just hoping gravity will return them safely to the slope as soon as possible, but the best are easy to spot — their skis form a V, and they lean out over the wedge, quiet, their arms tucked politely behind them.
In New Hampshire high school ski jumping, each competitor is given three attempts at the hill. There’s a distance score, as measured by a row of parents who balance precariously along the side of the landing hill and offer their best guess about where a jumper’s boots landed, and a style score, awarded by two or three judges who take into account a skier’s inrun, flight, and landing. The worst of the three jumps is thrown out; the other two scores are added together.
It’s easy to see why ski jumping got itself a bad rap, and it’s even easier to blame Jim McKay. During the entire run of ABC’s Wide World of Sports, the show he hosted for over twenty years, the opening montage featured the horrific crash of Yugoslav ski jumper Vinko Bogataj, coupled with McKay’s disappointed-father voiceover: “…and the agony of defeat.” It’s essentially a Pavlovian response now; hear that line, and you think of ski jumping.
Chip Henry, a former World Cup jumper and Kennett’s coach, says that the sport has transitioned in the last ten or fifteen years from a power sport to a “graceful, flying sport.” At six foot two, Chip found himself competing in Europe against jumpers who were up to a foot shorter than him, and lighter.
“The equipment’s changed, the technique’s changed, and the hills have actually started to change. They’re flattening the hills out so they’re longer and not as steep.”
Regardless of the shift from power to flight, however, ski jumping can look to the unaccustomed eye like something Evel Knievel might have done (in fact, several of his motorcycle jumps were also featured on Wide World of Sports). But ski jumping’s closest athletic kin is probably rowing: the perfect execution of a single, fluid motion. There is the same monastic devotion involved, too. Meets take place at night, at clearings in the middle of the woods, a few floodlights strategically lighting the way. Suits and equipment are often hand-me-downs, many bought secondhand from Lake Placid. Maintenance of the jump — shoveling and packing snow, grooming trails on the inrun, raking divots on the landing hill — is a routine part of practice. Hopkinton High’s coach, Scott Zipke, says, “There’s just nothing flashy about it, and I think that that appeals to the right kid.”
One of the right kids is Kennett’s Michael Larson, a senior, who narrowly wins the meet over Concord’s top jumper, junior Matt Bengtson. Michael’s father is an active rock climber and alpinist, so Tricia Mattox-Larson, his mother, doesn’t fear much for her son’s safety: “My kids have rock climbed since they could walk, so it seemed fine to me.” Michael’s only injury in four years of jumping was his freshman year after ski practice, when a truck ran him over in the parking lot, breaking his leg.
“Our team has had its share of injuries, so you can’t say it’s injury-free,” she says, “but I mean, Michael plays football, too, and it seemed like every game, they were carting kids off.”
As high school ski jumping involves eight-foot-long skis, steep slopes, and inexperienced athletes, there are some miscues. The outrun — the flat plane immediately after the landing hill — is short here. Hunter Haynes, one of Kennett’s best jumpers, doesn’t slow himself quickly enough and runs straight into the safety netting, his momentum carrying him with it into the woods. Athletes and coaches from several teams race to the scene, but he’s fine and takes his next jump; he finishes third overall. Another jumper tweaks his knee. A third suffered a sprained wrist before the meet started.
This league bears little resemblance, however, to an Olympic event. Zipke says it’s “like watching two different sports.” In Vancouver, the normal hill event took place from a 90-meter jump, and the large hill launched competitors off a 125-meter jump. The first meet of the high school league was on an 18-meter jump, and the state championships took place on a 38-meter jump. There’s not much time for athletes to get twisted in the air in a way that would result in more spectacular crashes. That said, Chip Henry explains that Olympic athletes would likely hurt themselves if they competed in these high school meets.
“Probably the smallest hill those guys would jump would be a K70,” he says. “They have such a direct move out over their skis; on the smaller jumps, there’s not so much air pressure to keep them out like that.”
Dan LeBlanc, Plymouth’s coach, tells me that in the 30-year history of his school’s jump facility, he’s only seen two broken bones.
“I’d stack that record up against any other sport at the high school here,” he said.
While there are injuries — concussions, mostly — spills usually occur once an athlete has landed, so there’s less distance to fall. I attended all but one meet this year, plus a practice, and I saw just one person fall on the inrun itself, à la Bogataj, and he managed to stop himself before the takeoff.
Still, you’d think that parental anxiety would be the biggest obstacle to this league’s existence, but several of the mothers I spoke with said that they were the ones who encouraged their children to try ski jumping in the first place. They’ve become convinced of the sport’s safety by the careful progression that the coaches require of their athletes. First comes dryland training, when jumpers learn the basic positions. Then, they start skiing down the landing hill. The first jump is usually no bigger than a step. From there, they move to a ten-meter jump.
Zipke says, “I don’t really think of it as my job to convince the parents [to let their kids jump], and it’s not really something I have any interest in doing. It’s their job to parent and my job to coach.”
Kids who aren’t coaxed into jumping by their parents seem to come to the sport through friends or older siblings. One of Michael Larson’s friends’ brothers was jumping, so “I think that put the bug in his ear,” his mother says. Julia Finch, a wispy freshman at Concord, joined because of her brother, Parker, an affable senior captain. “He had only good things to say about the sport, and he really encouraged me to try it. It’s helpful for me to have someone I’m close with to be able to give me tips and help me improve.”
Tira Hastings, a senior at Hanover, joined the team last season “because a bunch of my girlfriends were doing it.” It wasn’t because of her father, Jeff Hastings, who finished fourth on the large hill in the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics, the best performance by any American ski jumper.
“Actually,” Tira says, “it’s kind of a bummer that my Dad’s an Olympian, because people assume it runs in the family, which it certainly does not, as it turns out.”
While women are still shut out of ski jumping at the Olympics, they’re an established part of the league in New Hampshire. There’s a separate individual title for girls, but their leaps can and sometimes do count toward their teams’ scores, too. Contrary to her self-deprecation, Tira Hastings and her Hanover teammate, Sasha Kahn, are often Hanover’s third and fourth jumpers.
“I definitely see ski jumping as a male-dominated sport,” says Finch, who’s one of two girls on Concord’s squad. “Our team hadn’t had any girls on it since this year in quite a few years. But I’m okay with that. I don’t mind being different.”
There’s a sense of both independence and tradition that pervades the league. Three of the coaches — at Kennett, Hanover, and Plymouth — now coach at their own alma maters. A fourth, John Fulton, was classmates with Hanover’s coach. After graduating, Fulton jumped for four years at the University of New Hampshire, and served as one of UNH’s coaches in 1981, the last year that ski jumping was a sport at the college level.
Fulton has his theories about why it ended. In 1975, a member of the U.S. Jumping Team named Jeff Wright was killed when he fell during a jump in Brattleboro, VT. (Like Bogataj, who escaped his crash with a concussion, Wright wasn’t wearing a helmet.) College ski team coaches, who had been disgruntled about having to recruit Norwegian athletes in order to maintain a jumping team, used Wright’s death and concerns about safety as a way to eliminate that component of their programs. It worked, which is too bad, because Fulton seems like the kind of guy whose enthusiasm for the sport could have allowed him to carry all of interscholastic and intercollegiate jumping on his back. His mother was a home economics teacher and made jumping suits for the Hanover High and Dartmouth College teams in the ‘70s. Coaching the sport, as he does now at Concord, is his calling.
Despite all the family connections and rich history, ski jumping doesn’t necessarily resonate much outside of its community. One Hanover jumper, Andrew Kittredge, joined the team this year because his friend, Sasha Kahn, told him about it; he hadn’t known that Hanover even fielded a team before the season began, and as a snowboarder, he’d actually never been on skis before. Jumpers don’t get the recognition that more mainstream athletes like soccer, football, and hockey players receive. They are jumping for other reasons, often personal: a sense of self in the air, the thrill of flight, the satisfaction of landing.
The schools take turns hosting weekly meets at the five ski jumps around the state. Two weeks before Kennett’s, the seven schools gathered at Plymouth, the only school with a jump on its property, just down the hill from the football field. Although Plymouth’s meet was early on the schedule, their jump was not much fun for novices: a bump about twelve meters down the landing hill meant that anyone who touched down before it got a double bounce, making it technically more difficult to navigate on long skis.
Parker Finch, Concord’s co-captain, explained, “Now that I’m able to jump over it, the ride isn’t so bad, but there’s still that risk of catching your tail and being thrown headfirst.”
This happened to one girl during the meet, who was shaken up enough that she chose not to do her second or third runs, but all the other carnage that night consisted only of minor wipeouts.
Given the jump’s proximity to the school, a coterie of students was there; they gathered around the takeoff and cheered loudest for Jake Ross, for whom the words “spark plug” and “dynamo” are both apt. While he’s built like a Lego man — compact and blocky — and was not a factor in the team scoring for Plymouth at their home meet, he jumps with gusto. As with most meets, the crowd’s excitement dulled during the second and third runs, as standing out in the cold became less and less fun. Plymouth wound up second, behind Kennett. Plymouth coach Dan LeBlanc was impressed with the victors’ adaptability.
“A lot of kids tend to jump well on certain jumps and poorly on others, because they’re intimidated by, uncomfortable with, or unfamiliar with certain jumps. The Kennett kids don’t grow up ski jumping, but they always seem to be resilient and adaptable enough to do well on all hills.”
Kennett’s coach, Chip Henry, said, “I just try to teach kids to be aggressive. That’s kind of my big word, and that’s been the difference for my kids over the last couple of years.”
Henry also benefits from a team full of seniors who’ve jumped all four years.
I spent the Plymouth meet on the landing hill, helping to measure. On one side of me was Ryan Erlich-Mitchell’s mother and brother. It’s Ryan’s first year jumping, for Concord, and it was his mom’s first time at a meet. His brother told me that Ryan “loves it almost as much as Civil Air Patrol.” On my other side was Steve Larson, Michael’s father. As measurers, we were each responsible for one or two meters of space, marked by a long tape measure. It’s tougher than you think to determine whether someone’s boots have landed in your zone. The impact of the skis confused us on occasion. While we were standing there, trying not to slip and take out all the judges downhill from us, Larson told me about one of the jumps at Lake Placid, the old Olympic training facility that some teams chose to visit during preseason.
“It’s just amazing — like sculpture. You go to the top and it’s like, ‘You gotta be kidding me.’ You’re in a tower. You’re on the top of a hill in a tower.”
Michael won that meet, too; Ryan finished in a tie for 40th.
The next week’s meet was at Hanover. The evening was warm, and the snow was sticky. It slowed the inrun, shortening the jumps’ distances. Hanover coach Tom Dodds, a soft-spoken anesthesiologist whose son was a three-time state champion and spent the summer on the jumping circuit in Europe, told me that his team was pretty despondent about their performances. “The other night, when it was cold, we were going down to thirty, thirty-two meters. You’re not gonna see anything close to that tonight,” he said.
The top jumper — Michael Larson again — hit 28.5 meters. Kennett was the winning team again, too.
I hung out with the two judges at the Hanover meet. One was a grandfather named Will Smith; the other was Chris Hastings, a two-time national champion himself, whose brother is the Olympian and whose niece is Tira, one of Hanover’s captains. Hastings explained his scoring process: “If I see a kid jump, right away, I’ll see, say, 11 or 12 points right off the bat.” He then finds ways to fine-tune his score from there. “If they keep their legs straight, for instance,” he said, he’ll award another point or so. “I’m looking for something that looks aggressive and in control. Really not seeing a whole lot of that here — a perfect score is basically impossible on a hill this size.” Smith and Hastings both got more than a little excited to see telemark landings — one stylish foot in front of the other — from the occasional jumper.
If the U.S. is going to compete for medals in ski jumping, it’s not likely to be as a result of any increased participation in high school leagues, since there aren’t college teams to graduate to, and since — pardon the pun — it’s a big leap from high school state champion to Olympic hopeful. Interested jumpers join up with a club, and then try to make various elite age group teams on their way up to the national squad. The U.S. Ski Team doesn’t even provide funding for the jumpers, so they rely heavily on family and community support.
Nick Alexander is one jumper who briefly jumped in this league and was, this year, one of three U.S. jumpers in Vancouver. He grew up in Lebanon, a town just south of Hanover. Before attending school in Lake Placid to train more seriously, he spent his ninth grade year competing for his high school, which no longer has a team. His father, Jim, Lebanon’s Chief of Police, was diplomatic about its impact on his son’s ambitions.
“Nick was actually heavily involved in the Eastern Ski Jumping program before he got to high school. Still, he enjoyed being involved. It gave him time to compete in a different group. He has many friends in the league,” some of whom showed up for the local Olympic send-off arranged for him.
A week before the state championships, I watch John Fulton conduct a practice for his Concord High team. Teams typically jump just three times a week — two practices and one meet — which Fulton feels isn’t quite enough for anyone to see substantial improvement. Nonetheless, the bus dutifully arrives at the tiny ski area that serves as their home facility, a 40 minute journey from school. The kids emerge already dressed in their ski suits, and they start stretching. Parker Finch leads some of them on a brief warm-up run, and then they pair up to work on their takeoffs and flight positions. One jumper crouches and then springs up; his partner catches him in the chest and carries him that way for a few feet. Fulton is a deft coach; he has an innate sense of what each of his athletes needs to hear.
“I took one of those sports psychology classes years ago, where they talked about immediate feedback,” he tells me, as we station ourselves just below the jump, at the top of the landing hill. “By the time they jump, and they come back up, the feedback’s not immediate enough.”
That’s why Fulton has a walkie-talkie hanging around his neck — the other one is at the end of the outrun. After each kid has jumped, they radio up to him to discuss what they felt and what he saw.
“All right, Shane, looks like you had trouble getting set up top.”
“Yeah, it was a little weird.”
“Well, let’s call that a re-do, then. Get yourself set, push off the bar, whole foot, then get in your good in-run with a nice, relaxed upper body when you jump.”
To the girl who needs to tuck her body in tighter as she gathers speed: “Caroline, what’s for dinner?”
“Ribs and thighs, Coach.”
“That was a nice ride.”
“Yeah, I thought it was my best one so far.”
“All right, I want you to keep stretching, though. Keep stretching with the chin.”
“What’d you feel on that?”
“It felt bad.”
“Well, it was an ugly jump, so I’m glad it felt bad for you.”
Concord has three strong jumpers, but the top four jumpers count in a meet, so Fulton’s main focus is to coax a little more distance out of a few kids whose bodies pop straight up when they come off the jump, making them drop faster. It’s a disconcerting feeling to many beginners when they start trying to lean their bodies straight out over their skis. It looks to them like their ski tips are coming up towards their faces, and that they’re going to start tumbling. At this point in the season, the coach wants some of the kids to at least bend at the waist. Fulton, whose team won their first meet of the year two days before, seems optimistic that a state title is possible.
A day after the state meet, John Fulton doesn’t have a way of describing what happened to his Concord team. During their next practice after the one I attended, their #2 jumper fell badly; he got a concussion and broke his collarbone. The next day, Parker wrote, “That essentially eliminates our chances of winning, so now we’re just hoping for second.” The night before states, their #4 jumper had an unrelated medical emergency and was unable to compete. During warm-ups on Friday for the meet, while Fulton was being interviewed by a local TV news station, his #1 jumper, Matt Bengtson, fell and got a concussion, too. Two of Concord’s other jumpers, having seen all the fates met by their teammates, decided that they didn’t feel comfortable jumping in the meet. Left with three jumpers, Concord came in sixth out of seven teams. “I have always told the kids from the first day that I meet them, that jumping has to be fun,” Fulton writes. “If you don’t feel comfortable, just say to me, ‘It just doesn’t feel right today, Coach.’ I have never criticized an athlete for not jumping, and last night was no different even though it was States.”
Fulton is clearly upset by this sudden reversal of fortune. “We put fifteen years worth of bad luck into a two week period,” he says. But his refusal to push those two kids who pulled out says more about the safety of high school ski jumping than a pair of freak accidents to his two best jumpers does. The jumpers progress so deliberately that they become acutely aware throughout the season of what feels right and what doesn’t, and their coaches trust them enough to let them make their own decisions. Chip Henry of Kennett says he lets kids jump from the smaller of the two hills they practice on until they tell him they’re ready to move up.
“It takes a while for the beginners to get comfortable, so you try not to overwhelm them,” he explains. “You keep it fun for ‘em, let ‘em get some confidence. That makes them more coachable.”
Kennett defended its state (and national) championship easily. Michael Larson comfortably won the individual title; two of his teammates were second and third. Parker Finch came in just a half-point behind them. His first jump was his shortest, which he attributed to his injured teammates.
“Matt’s fall really freaked me out, so I went more easily. After that, I realized that Matt and Chris wouldn’t want me to hold anything back because of their falls, so I jumped a lot harder.”
His best distance was only two meters short of Larson’s.
Hanover dominated the girls’ competition, sweeping the top three spots. Tira Hastings finished second. Julia Finch, whose brother Parker helped convince her to jump in the state meet after she expressed some anxiety after warm-ups, came in 29th overall. Later, reflecting on the season, she writes, “I was surprised to learn how brave I can be. I never would have expected to be doing this, but I definitely do think I will continue ski jumping throughout high school.”
There was also a Rookie of the Year award to give out. It was a big cup, larger than the team title plaque, and it was named for Gene Ross, who coached Plymouth for a number of years before dying in a construction accident seven years ago. As John Fulton introduced the prize, the Plymouth jumpers gathered around Jake Ross, patting him on the back expectantly. They assumed he would win it. How could he not? It was named after his dad.
But numbers trumped legacy. The award went to a kid from Hopkinton, their top jumper, who finished four places higher in the overall standings at the state meet than Jake did. Jake was crushed, and rushed away to shed some private tears. He won’t have another chance to win his father’s award. Dan LeBlanc, who was helping John Fulton distribute awards, seemed a little crestfallen, even though his Plymouth team was second overall.
Later, he says, “Feeling bad doesn’t really scratch the surface of how I felt about it. He really felt good about how he jumped because he did jump very well. I tried to downplay expectations, just because you never know with the judging. The kid’s whole family was there — aunts and uncles who’d never been to a jumping meet, even when Gene was coaching. It meant so much to him and the family and to be so close…” Dan’s voice trails off. “Afterwards, I let Jake know what his dad meant to me. He was my coach, he was my boss in the summer, his dad and my dad were really close. Being the kind of kid he is, by the end of the night, he was already talking about next year.”
Tradition matters here. There is little to no institutional memory of high school ski jumping in any other state. When I called the Colorado High School Activities Association to see if they’d ever sanctioned the sport, I spoke with a dispiriting woman named Audra, who told me, “We’ve never had it, and to be honest, probably never will. It’s just too dangerous.”
In New Hampshire, the sport is alive, but so is its aesthetic — people are kind as can be to each other, but you work hard to earn what you get.
That ski jumping is so unique is also a point of pride. Tricia Mattox-Larson says, “Outside of our door, we have three pairs of alpine skis and then Michael’s jumping skis. People come over and say, ‘Have you got Herman Munster here? Who the heck skis on those things?’”
At the end of the meet, after Fulton wished everyone a safe drive home, I hiked to the top of the jumping tower with Parker and Julia Finch’s mother, where the whole family goes each year at the conclusion of the season. We climbed up a slope beside the idle rope tow until we were underneath the wooden structure. From there, it was a couple flights of stairs until we emerged, to check out the view.
Parker, the only jumper who remained in his jump suit after the meet, for the awards ceremony, was still in it, as though changing would break the final bond he had with this league. You could see the lights of the nearby private school, the constellations above. And you had a breathtaking view of the path down that all these jumpers had spent the season taking. Everything looked so far away from up there, but the further you flew, the closer you could get to being somewhere.
Photos courtesy of Ken S. Kotch Photography.