Flying Into the Night
A Thrilling Ride With NH's High School Ski Jumpers
2012 New Hampshire Girls High School Ski Jumping Champion and Concord High School Ski Jumping Team Captain Julia Finch launches into the night air.
Photo by P.T. Sullivan
A slender teenager in a skin-tight shiny blue jumping suit stands at the top of the ski jump. Night surrounds her. She pulls on her helmet and goggles, squints at the floodlights illuminating the jump and stares down the icy chute before her. She trades thumbs up with her nearby coach. From out of the night, the loud speaker blares "Julia Finch, Concord High." The crowd cheers.
The scene below the young jumper is eerie and wild, spooky and exciting. She stands at the top of what looks like a huge floodlit frozen waterfall, a motionless cascade of sparkling snow and ice crystals. She has entered a magical world of thrill and danger and freedom.
Her moment of truth has come. This is her last jump of the night, her last chance to win the State championship. Taking a deep breath, she pushes off and instantly drops steeply down into the chute, accelerating as if catapulted. She crouches low to gain speed. Frigid night air rushes through her helmet. She hears nothing, sees nothing but the lip of the jump racing toward her.
Now, she has no return. She must jump ...
Julia Finch is flying into the night. She leans forward and spreads her skis wide to ride the air and stretch out the jump for distance. She flies. Then her skis slap down with a loud clap on the steep landing hill. The crowd roars as the loudspeaker announces her distance of 25.5 meters - 84 feet! It is her longest jump of the night, her longest jump of the season and the longest jump of her life.
That jump lifts Julia Finch into the title she has trained for all summer and aimed at all winter - 2012 New Hampshire Girls High School Ski Jumping Champion.
Julia Finch at the top of the jump.
Photo by P.T. Sullivan
Ski Jumping Changes Lives
"Hello," says the young woman in unlaced boots and a shiny blue jumping suit, padded for protection against falls on icy jumping hills. Clomping confidently across the crowded, noisy room with its open fires and roaring pellet stoves and chattering high school ski jumpers comes a five-foot four-inch bundle of energy named Julia Elizabeth Finch, captain of the Concord High School Ski Jumping Team. Chin up, shoulders squared, exuding confidence and optimism, right hand extended in greeting - is this aura what makes a ski jumper? Or is this the kind of young person that ski jumping produces? A few words of polite small talk and Julia returns to her teammates. The team has just finished a Friday night early season meet at the Blackwater Ski Area and Jump Center at Proctor Academy in Andover.
"We have all 15 boys and girls of the Concord High School ski jumping team here," Coach Fulton observes. The youngsters stand around or sit on benches, exhausted but exhilarated. It's a chilly December evening, and they have been jumping on the small hill at Blackwater, rated at 20 meters (65 feet), meaning that jumpers can safely leap up to that distance. "We adjust the takeoff to make sure nobody comes anywhere near exceeding the safe distance," Fulton explains. The team practices and competes at night because the sport requires after-class bus travel of an hour or so.
Fulton, 55, started jumping at the age of five, trained at the University of New Hampshire, was twice a state jumping champion and often jumped at the national level. He believes in thorough preparation, beginning with summer training. "When school starts," he explains, "they enter dry-land sessions [such as leaping off a platform into a huge mattress to simulate the takeoff of a jump], are fitted with uniforms and equipment, attend a parents-and-students briefing on the upcoming schedule and take practice runs on their big skis without jumping as soon as the snow permits."
Piled into the big lodge rooms are dozens of young jumpers from other high schools here to compete at Blackwater - Hanover, Hopkinton, Lebanon, Plymouth, Sunapee. They change into casual clothes for the bus ride back to their home schools. They drink sodas and munch on hot dogs and hamburgers. They talk about practice, school matters, music, homework, food, dating. Their coaches huddle with individual jumpers, praising one, reassuring another.
"These kids love the sport," Coach Fulton says. "We don't have a jump in Concord, so we use the jumps here in Andover for practice and meets. These boys and girls work hard and they give it their best in meets. They learn a lot about themselves. They are good students too. They are held in high esteem in school. And they have fun."
Hanover High School Ski Jumping Team Captain Sam Shapiro in flight with Coach Dodds nearby assessing his form.
Photo by P.T. Sullivan
A Coach and a Ski Jumper
"I listen," says Tom Dodds, coach of the Hanover High team, "after practice, I listen to my jumpers." He introduces his captain, Sam Shapiro, a rugged, straight-ahead kind of guy, a terrific competitor even though he came late to the sport of ski jumping. Sam has a spectacular final year in class and on the jumping hills, and exceeds his distance goal for the year by jumping 55.5 meters (182 feet) at an after-season event on the big hill in Park City, Utah, site of the 2002 Winter Olympics.
"I had been skiing for as long as I could remember, but ski jumping was kind of a fluke," Sam recalls. "I had never actually seen a ski jump when I entered high school. I saw the signs around the school for signup and just showed up for the meeting."
There he met Coach Tom Dodds, and his life began to change. Dodds, a former ski jumper at Williams College, is a tall, well-built man with the upbeat confidence of a doctor, which he is - Chief of the Department of Anesthesiology at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Clinic.
"I can honestly say that Tom had a huge effect on my high school career," Sam says. "Some nights I found myself wanting to have a good jump just so I could look up the hill and see him smile and be genuinely happy about my success. I could not have asked for a better coach or role model."
"The feeling of coming over the knoll and having the hill just fall away from you as you keep flying is just intoxicating. It's incomparable, not like anything else in the world, and while it lasts for only two or three seconds, the hours of work put into it make this feeling worth it."
"There is no better feeling than having a far jump," Sam adds. "For it to be a winning jump, it has to be a far jump. I can honestly say that I would rather go far and have a fun jump than win a ski jumping meet. To me, the sport is for me. I'm up there jumping for me, and honestly enjoying every step of it is something that keeps me coming back."
Sam is now a freshman at Skidmore College. "I definitely plan on jumping as much as I can," he says, noting that Lake Placid, famed for its Olympic-quality jumps, is only two hours away. "I just can't imagine a winter without it."
The Making of a Ski Jumper
"Ski jumpers need three qualities," observes Coach Fulton: "Strength, courage and a love of flight - a love of air." Ski jumping requires an unusually high degree of athleticism. It is also a finesse sport and requires special psychological aptitude as well as physical prowess. Like platform diving, like gymnastics, like trampoline, like snowboard's spectacular half-pipe acrobatics, ski jumping requires enormous self-control and calm emotions. "You've got to be able to focus, gain self-control, keep calm under stress," Fulton observes. "Jumping is a great character builder."
"High school jumpers train all summer by running, lifting weights and climbing New Hampshire mountains," Fulton says. "Boys and girls train together and jump together at meets, but they are judged separately, so you have a girl's winner and a boy's winner. The boys and girls train hard and work hard in practice, and they jump hard. The boys and girls support each another and help each other tremendously."
Coaches also gain something. "For a coach, it is gratifying and rewarding to work with an athlete like Sam Shapiro, who is passionate and committed," Coach Dodds says. "Sam's enthusiasm made it easier to put in those hours out at the hill."
The 2012 "States" at Kennett
All the high school jumpers are here.
All the ski-jumping boys and girls of Concord High School are here, all the jumpers from Hanover and Kennett and Merrimack Valley and Plymouth and Sunapee are here. And their parents and friends. And fans of ski jumping. All are here for the New Hampshire State High School Ski Jumping Championships.
The "here" is the big 38-meter (125 feet) jump of Kennett High School, located a few miles from the east end of the Kancamagus Highway. The jump is carved out of deep pine forests and its outrun ends almost at the highway.
Younger and less experienced jumpers are leery of the big hill under the floodlights, leery of the fast, slick, icy conditions that more experienced jumpers prefer. Leery of the bales of hay stacked at the end of the outrun. Coaches pull their younger skiers from the competition. This event is for the big boys and girls.
Some schools have six or eight jumpers, others just two or three. Merrimack Valley sends a team of one - but what a team! Matt Doyle (see a WebExtra interview with Matt Doyle's mother, Kathleen, at the end of the story for insight on what it's like to watch her son compete) has dominated the season with his long, graceful jumps and emerges this night as 2012 State Boys Champion. Julia Finch takes the top spot for girls. Sam Shapiro is slightly off his timing and finishes a respectable third for boys. "Sometimes you win," he says philosophically, "and sometimes you don't." Coach Dan LeBlanc's talented jumpers from Plymouth take the team title.
So another season of competition has come and gone. Some jumpers win the titles and the hardware, some don't. But that doesn't really seem to matter, because in ski jumping true accomplishment lies in the deed itself. To act is to achieve, to jump is to succeed.
Whether they have medals or trophies or just a few bumps and bruises from an ungainly fall to show for their efforts, the young jumpers in our story are already winners in life. Whatever else they ever do, they can always say, "I was a New Hampshire high school ski jumper." And that means something. It means a lot.
They have stood at the top of a ski jump and stared down that steep chute. They have taken a deep breath and pushed off. They have awed and worried and thrilled and even inspired those who have parented them, trained them, read about them and been privileged to watch them flying into the night. NH
Joseph Foote was ski team captain and a jumper at Williams College. He writes from his home on Cape Cod and cottage on Newfound Lake.
Photo by P.T. Sullivan
Julia Finch: Tell Us What It's Like
Asked to describe her state of mind and emotions during a jump, Julia Finch gave these responses:
The night before the States: "Very excited."
Morning of: "Very nervous."
Standing atop the jump: "Pure focus. My heart always starts beating faster and faster as I approach the jump."
Down the in-run chute: "Relaxed. I take a deep breath and let go of the bar. As I get closer to the takeoff, I make my leg muscles tense and try to feel the power building up in my calves. I envision me popping off the end."
Through the air: "The fun part. I always enjoy the ride through the air. It never lasts as long as I'd like, but it certainly is enjoyable. I stretch out my neck to make me jump as far as possible. I begin to concentrate on the landing."
Landing: "Pure relief."
Out-run: "What could I have done better? What is Coach Fulton going to say?"
Skis off: "Looking back up the hill to hear that I had a good jump is the best feeling I could possibly have at this moment. I'm never sure at this point whether my jump was winning. I only hear the distance [on the loudspeaker]. Even if I jumped far, I am worried about what the judges are going to think."
High School Girl Jumper Cut from Squad, Turns Setback Into Silver
At Laconia High School in the 1950s, Penelope Theresa Pitou ignored the no-girls rule and tried out for the boys ski team. She also jumped - "I loved it," she says now.
The coach cut her from the squad because she was a girl.
Penny Pitou's sweet revenge was winning two silver medals in the downhill and giant slalom events at the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, California. She was the first American skier to win a medal in the Olympic downhill event.
Today, Penny operates a travel agency through which she, among other things, leads ski groups to European resorts.
Will Gilford Become a Ski Jump Center Again?
A citizen group is restoring and rebuilding four jumps at the Gunstock Ski Resort in Gilford. They are well along in rehabbing the 10- and 20-meter hills and are mapping plans to restore the 40-meter jump. Sometime in the future, they would like to rebuild the big 60-meter hill - perhaps converting it to 70 meters in the process. Known as Belknap in the old days, the 60-meter hill regularly drew thousands of spectators to watch top national and regional jumpers soar up to 180 feet. Perhaps someday soon, the hill will again be the site of big-time ski jumping extravaganzas.
An energetic backer of and financial donor to this work is Penny Pitou, who twice represented the United States in Winter Olympics Games and won two silver medals. Donations from the public are welcome. Contact Achim Steinbrueck, president of the Gunstock Mountain Preservation Society by e-mail at email@example.com.
Gunstock is one of the largest and most popular ski resorts in New Hampshire. It features many lifts and trails for skiers of all persuasions, from classic to advanced snow board. Its summer features include a wildly popular long zip-line adventure, hiking trails, water events and off-road Segway tours. Visit gunstock.com for more information.
Ski jumpers begin to learn at a young age. You'll find a number of great places for ski jumping lessons below.
Photo by P.T. Sullivan
Starting 'Em Young
"We start them very young," says Tim Norris, retired long-time ski coach at Proctor Academy in Andover and one of the grand old men of New Hampshire ski jumping. He still coaches the Andover Outing Club (AOC) youth program along with Jay Daniels, where youngsters often start at age 7. "They start on very small jumps and slowly work up," Norris says. "Most love it."
Proctor is a private high school and long a generator of top Nordic Combined skiers (cross country and jumping) and Alpine (downhill and slalom) skiers. Andover Outing Club is a junior Nordic Combined Program that serves Andover and a fairly wide surrounding area. Last season, two girls from Wolfeboro and two boys from Massachusetts were among the trainee jumpers.
Norris has coached for both Proctor and the AOC, which he founded in 1976, for 35 years and thinks of them interchangeably. Many of Proctor's best ski jumpers come out of the AOC. The two programs have produced two Nordic Combined Olympians, Carl Van Loan and Jed Hinckley, and two cross-country Olympians, brothers Kris and Justin Freeman. Of the eight members of the current National Ski Jumping Team, two are from Andover, Chris Lamb and Nick Fairall. Representing the East last year in the Junior Nationals were AOC combined skiers Luke Daniels and Matt Doyle.
Proctor's set of graduated jumps attracts teams from many schools for practice, among them Bow High School, Colby-Sawyer College, Concord High School, Holderness School, Hopkinton High School, Kearsarge Regional high School, Plymouth High School, Plymouth State University, and Sunapee High School as well as Proctor and the AOC.
A Short Course on Ski Jumping
Ski jumping is believed to have originated in 1809 in Norway and has been an Olympic sport since 1924. For the first time, women jumpers will compete in the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, in 2014.
Scoring for the New Hampshire high school jumpers is based primarily on distance and style. The two go together because - as a rule - the better the style, the longer the jump.
Each hill is given a K point, meaning its critical point or safe longest jump. Thus, the longest safe jump for a K-40 hill is 40 meters or 120 feet. K points are always set conservatively, in the interest of safety. The jumper is awarded points for distance, but also for style - on the in-run, in-flight and on the out-run. Judges look for steadiness, technique in the air and style on landing.
High school jumpers strive to use the modern technique of a V in flight.
Photo by P.T. Sullivan
High school jumpers strive to use the modern technique of a V in flight, with ski heels together and ski tips wide apart. The jumper leans forward, between his skis, for maximum aerodynamic effect, and holds his arms against his body with hands open to add some steering ability. The preferred landing is in the telemark position, with skis tight together with one advanced ahead of the other for maximum stability. Because of short landing areas on most high school hills, the jumper goes into reverse immediately after landing, turning his skis sideways at high speed and sliding to a stop in a great shower of snow. It's quite a sight.
Ski jumping is one of the two elements in so-called Nordic combined, which adds the scores of jumping with scores of cross-country running into the Nordic combined score. Downhill and slalom scores are similarly combined in the so-called Alpine combined score.
New Hampshire high schools routinely jump in the range of 75 to 110 feet. Some jumpers, such as Sam Shapiro, who jump at adult meets in Vermont and the Midwest, attain distances of 160 to 200 feet. Olympic and other international venues offer opportunities to jump in the range of 400 feet, while jumpers on the huge so-called sky flying hills soar close to 800 feet. The current men's world record is 809 feet, held by Norwegian Johan Evensen; the current women's record of 418 feet is held by Norwegian Annette Sagen.
New Hampshire High School Ski Jumping Events
Winter 2013 Will feature competitions for Concord, Hanover, Lebanon, Merrimack Valley, Plymouth and Sunapee. Be sure to confirm dates with schools in advance. Not all schools compete in all meets.
Friday, January 4, 6 p.m. Meet at Andover
Wednesday, January 9, 6 p.m. Meet at Lebanon
Friday, January 18, 6 p.m. Meet at Hanover
Wednesday, January 23, 6 p.m. Meet at Plymouth
Friday, February 1, 6 p.m. Meet at Andover
Friday, February 8, 6 p.m. Pre-States at Kennett
Friday, February 15, 6 p.m. States at Kennett (see more information about this even below)
WebExtra Content: Deep Winter Spectacle: The "States"
The Kancamagus Highway, a hilly, winding, fun road between Conway and Lincoln in the North Country, is justly famous for its sweeping vistas of glorious fall color. On a chilly late-February night, however, the Kanc is in a darker mood as you leave Conway and head west, as you follow your headlights through a canyon of tall, silent stands of solitary pine and fir and spruce, all motionless and black and slightly sinister.
Then parked cars line both sides of the road, people scurry about, and suddenly an eerie, brilliant, blinding light floods a huge cave carved out of the black forest. Is this an alien landing? No, it's a ski jump! Right there in nowhere, and it's the site of the New Hampshire State High School Ski Jumping Championships - the "States," to the youthful competitors. The Big One.
And some ski jump it is: the 38-meter hill of Kennett High School that looks at night like a vast, frozen, weird sculpture. Boys and girls in bright jumping suits and carrying their long jumping skis march slowly up the hill. A jumper in practice comes flying off; everyone pauses to watch. More than a hundred people stand at the bottom of the landing hill, talking eagerly, sipping hot drinks, stamping their feet in the snow, staring at the hay bales piled up to stop jumpers who slide too fast, too far, when finishing their jump. "Keeps them from going into the Kanc," a wag mutters
The "States!" Every effort - all the pre-season running and weight-lifting, all the night practices, the early season meets, the thrills, the long bus rides, the tears, the laughter - it all aims toward the States, to be held at Kennett High School in Conway on February 15, 2013. Try it. You'll never forget it.
Why not give it a try?
Photo by P.T. Sullivan
Places to Go, Jumping to See, Where to Learn to Jump
You can watch ski jumping at several sites in New Hampshire, and adults can enroll children for jumping instruction (not advised for youngsters older than 16). Club programs may change from winter to winter, so you should e-mail or call ahead for this winter's program. Here are some places and activities:
The Andover Outing Club offers ski jump instruction for boys and girls in the 6th to 8th grades under Coach Tim Norris, recently retired as the long-time ski coach at Proctor Academy. Jumps for beginners are very small, and jumpers progress slowly up jumps of 10, 18 and 38 meters in size at Proctor Academy's Blackwater Ski Area in Andover.
Contact: Tim Norris
The Gunstock Nordic Association is the venerable ski club that offers ski jumping and cross-country instruction at its large facility. Also, the Gunstock Mountain Historic Preservation Society is restoring four jumps of graduated size, including the historic big 60-meter hill.
Contact: Achim Steinbrueck
or Lisa King
The Ford Sayre Ski Club maintains jumps of 10, 18 and 32 meters in size. Ford Sayre serves Hanover and the Upper Valley and enjoys close relations with Dartmouth College. The club operates a junior jumping facility at Oak Hill, just north of Hanover. Ford Sayre has produced several world-class ski jumpers.
Contact: Tom Dodds
The Lebanon Outing Club maintains jumps of 10, 25 and 50 meters in size. The club has a long record of producing outstanding jumpers.
Contact: Jon Farnham
The Mt. Sunapee Area Ski Club maintains jumps of 10, 25 and 32 meters in size. The Sunapee/Newport Youth Program does not offer ski jumping instruction for young people at this time. The jumps are used for the annual Newport Winter Carnival, held in February (call Ron Beaudet, below, for date and time).
Contact: Ron Beaudet, firstname.lastname@example.org, (603) 863-4593
A good source of information on ski jumping activities in New Hampshire and the Northeast is the Eastern Ski Jumping & Nordic Combined Foundation, which is a charitable foundation devoted to the sport. It operates a website (skijumpeast.com) that reports current ski jumping clubs in the eastern USA and lists both public and private high schools that maintain ski jumping programs. The website offers links to other ski jumping websites.
Information on all forms of skiing in New Hampshire is available at skinh.com, (603) 745-9396.
Public High and Prep Schools That Have Ski Jumping Teams
Concord High School
Coach John Fulton, (603) 224-3053
Hanover High School
Coach Tom Dodds, (603) 643-9418
Hopkinton High School
Coach Tom Warner; Athletic Director Dan Meserve (603) 746-6397 ext. 226
Kennett High School
Coach Chip Henry, (603) 356-4343
Plymouth High School
Dan LeBlanc, (603) 236-1506
Ron Beaudet, (603) 863-4593
Douglass Kendall, (603) 779-5314
Chuck Will, (603) 735-6213
A Mother Views Her Champion Son
Kathleen Doyle talks about her son, Matthew, who is reining New Hampshire State Boys High School Ski Jumping Champion.
What's it like to watch Matt develop into a high school State Champion?
Matthew has always had a natural athletic ability and he started ski jumping at the age of 8. It was a big thrill to him, and I could tell it was something he wanted to continue doing. I remember his first time competing at Lake Placid as a youngster. He pointed to the big Olympic jumps and said, 'Mom, some day I'm going to jump those.' I shook my head and said,' I don't think so.' Well, he moved up to the Olympic jumps last year at the age of 15 and has been successfully jumping them.
How did you come to be his coach?
Merrimack Valley High School had never had a ski jumping program. Matt was aware of jumping at other schools because the students would train and compete at the same ski jump that Matt trained at with the Andover Outing Club. We approached Kevin. O'Brien, the Athletic Administrator at Merrimack Valley High School, for his support. Mr. O'Brien said we'd need a coach and no one was available. So I volunteered. Mr. O'Brien had me attend a coaching class, and I became Merrimack Valley's coach of a team of one - Matt.
What are your emotions when you see Matt standing at the top of the jump?
Matt has been well trained. The Andover Outing Club produces some big stars who have gone on to be great ski jumpers and some who have made it to the Olympics. They do everything to make sure the children are safe. So I feel very confident when Matt is at the top of a jump. Maybe I was a little nervous the first time he went off the Olympic jump in Lake Placid, but now it's just training as usual.
What were your emotions when Matt won the States at Kennett?
As a freshman, Matt won every high school competition he entered. He did it by out jumping his competitors in distance and style points. The States was Matt's first time competing on the Kennett jump. I was concerned that he wasn't getting a strong lead. Matt maintained his composure, however, and stuck to making every jump with good style and good landings. He won the State title by one point. I was proud that he didn't get ruffled and he didn't panic. I was holding my breath. It was a nail biter.
Anything else you'd care to add?
Ski Jumping is a wonderful sport, and we're so fortunate here in New Hampshire to have several locations, clubs, and high schools that support ski jumping. I hope that we can encourage more students from New Hampshire to try it out.