Ski Jumping In The Upper Valley Is Not For The Faint Of Heart
When it comes to winter sports in high school, New Hampshire athletes stand ?alone – in some high places.
It’s the only state in the nation where secondary school athletes compete in what may seem like a dangerous game: ski jumping. Before they join a school team, kids in the Upper Valley get plenty of practice in clubs. A recent competition brought ski jumpers from several neighboring communities to Storrs Hill, in Lebanon, New Hampshire.
At this tiny community ski area up a hill from downtown Lebanon, teenagers wearing one-piece stretch Spandex trudged up ice steps to a ski jump platform. That’s where they waited for the signal to blast down the steep ramp and sail through the air.
On one side of the slope, in the second story of a well-worn wooden shed, an announcer with a bullhorn and two judges looked out small windows at the skiers flying past them. Volunteers on the opposite side of the hill double checked the marks each jumper hit on the icy ground.
Between each jump, amateur ski jumper, judge and sometime coach Walter Malmquist offered advice to the young competitors.
“By changing your direction off the take-off, you’re going to come into the hill at the bottom better,” he told 17-year-old James McCluskey, from Hopkinton, New Hampshire. “Regardless of whether you go high or you go out, hold it to the end and stick the foot forward. That’s all it is, it’s finishing the ride.”
“Even in high school meets on a small hill, I always feel like I’m leaving stuff out there,” McCluskey lamented.
"When you are a kid, you always want to fly. And this is the closest thing you can do to flying." - James McCluskey, Hopkinton, N.H.
But he did well at this meet.
New Hampshire is the last state to hold onto ski jumping as a high school sport. Other states have found it too expensive, in part because of liability concerns. And Malmquist said it’s a sport that even older amateurs — like him — can enjoy.
“I still ski jump a little bit.” he said. “And it’s not something I’m going to do because I’m a world champion. It’s because it’s exhilarating, it’s an outside sport in the winter time, we have great friends. Let’s face it, if you have the courage to go up a hill like this? People have to respect you.”
And if you happen to have been an Olympic ski jumper, you get even more respect.
Jeff Hastings grew up in Norwich, Vermont as a ski jumper. He went to the Olympics in 1984 as an athlete, finishing fourth, and returned to coach in 1988.
On this day, though, Hastings was just another parent, anxiously watching his son, Sam, go airborne.
Hastings watches a lot of young skiers take up this sport in the Upper Valley, and he can tell pretty early on who is cut out for it.
“You know [you have to have] a recklessness to be really good, and it’s running that ragged edge of not hurting yourself or scaring yourself, even," he said.
But for Hopkinton's young James McCluskey, ski jumping is the perfect way to defy gravity.
“Like, when you are a kid, you always want to fly. And this is the closest thing you can do to flying," he explained. And for the best of these daring Upper Valley winter athletes, it could even be an aerial route to the Olympics.