The thrill of watching ski jumpers soar impossible distances in the air isn’t limited to television and the Olympic games in Sochi. This weekend in Brattleboro, world-class ski jumpers from at least five countries will compete in the annual Harris Hill Ski Jump.
The Harris Hill ski jump rises more than 300 feet over the town of Brattleboro. It’s one of the few Olympic-sized hills left in the country that’s built into the natural landscape, rather than on man-made scaffolding. The annual event, which dates back to the 1920s, is run entirely by volunteers. Days before the competition, a dozen men have begun grading the take-off area. From here the jumpers will launch themselves into the air at 60 miles an hour.
"It’s such a daredevil sport," says Glenn Rosinski, one of the volunteers working on the hill. "The energy and the passion that these athletes bring to this event is what inspires the rest of us come out and volunteer to make it happen. That’s our reward -- getting to come here and watch this on Saturday and Sunday."
Rex Bell is a former Olympic coach and chief of competition for the event.
"We’ve got about 20 U.S. skiers," he says. "Five, Slovenians, two Norwegians, three Swedish skiers and two Canadians." But no women are participating this year.
Women jumpers have been in the spotlight in the 2014 Sochi games. After a long battle led by a small group of U.S. female jumpers, women’s ski jumping is finally an Olympic sport. But Bell says the effort to get women into the games and train a few top jumpers to compete, left little energy for cultivating the next generation. Now Bell thinks that will happen.
"They have to develop a program for younger girls so that there’s a natural progression, a pipeline up to that national level," says Bell. "And that, quite frankly, is why there were only three girls in Brattleboro last year and will likely be no girls this year.”
It’s not just a woman’s problem, Bell adds. The U.S. Ski Association hasn’t funded any ski jumping, men's or women's, for years. Bell is also the director of the U.S. Association of Ski Jumpers, a relatively new organization formed to support the sport. The group is not only raising funds but working with local clubs and schools, in hopes that some will resurrect the small hills where young jumpers can learn the sport. Bell says ski jumping was once much more popular in New England than it is now. But programs have closed, because of insurance worries or competition from other sports that get more attention.
Then there’s the fear factor. Twenty- year old jumper Tara Geraghty-Moats of Fairlee says most people think ski jumpers are crazy. She says it takes a certain kind of person to want to try something that looks impossible.
"There's a small percentage who say, 'I want to do that. I want to see if I can fly.'"
Geraghty-Moats is one up-and-coming jumper. She learned the sport on a small hill in Lebanon, New Hampshire. She’ll be competing in Finland this weekend. But she recalls watching the Harris Hill jump as a ten-year-old after competing on a small, now defunct, hill in Brattleboro Living Memorial Park.
"After I finished, I went over and watched the competition on the bigger hill," she says. "And I said, 'I’m going to get good enough one day to jump it.' And I did."
In 2009, after the ski jump was renovated through a massive community effort, Gerachty-Moats was the first woman jumper off the hill. She says the experience was amazing.