BRATTLEBORO >>Kids under the age of 17 will soar off the 90-meter ski jump in town this weekend, but they won't let fear get in the way of their love for the extreme sport.
"I really just focus on the jump and what I'm going to do instead of thinking about what could go wrong," said Bennett Gamber, 14 of Steamboat Springs, Colo., who will compete in the U-18 division this weekend. "I just go," added Niklas Malacinski, 12 and Annika Belshaw, 13, both of Steamboat Springs, Colo.
This weekend 27 jumpers from the U.S. and Europe will compete at the 94th Harris Hill Ski Jump tournament and a field of 16 juniors will compete as a warm-up to the junior nationals in Salisbury, Conn., the following week. The junior jumpers that are 17 years old and younger have been involved in the sport for five or more years, but they will jump at Harris Hill tournament for the first time in their lives.
Harris Hill Ski Jump, Inc. is a 501C-3 non-profit organization and the jump itself was built in 1922 for a cost of $2,000. In 2005, after the jump was postponed for one month due to weather, the organizing committee announced the hill would be closed for renovation. Frankly, the infrastructure of the ski jump was falling apart and it was no longer safe for the jumpers. In addition, to qualify as an official International Ski Federation (FIS) event, the ski jump needed to be brought up to international standards. From 2006 to 2008 there was no jumping at Harris Hill, but a community wide fundraising effort that raised $600,000 insured the jump would be ready in 2009. This year points will not go toward the World Cup but their participation alone fuels a long community tradition.
There are 11 junior jumpers from Steamboat Springs, Colo., have come to Harris Hill for the first time in their lives and have been training under Garrett Fiske who is the head Nordic Combined U-14 coach in Steamboat. Fiske has trained the team for about six years and says he has noticed some enormous strides from some of the kids.
"It's amazing to watch them grow-up and go from barely being able to stand on jump skis, to going to bottom of the hill on jump skis all of the sudden and making these big tournaments where they're competing against the big boys and girls," said Fiske.
While many of the juniors will be competing at Harris Hill for the first time, there will be many regular competitors who have been jumping in Brattleboro since they were in their teens. Spencer Knickerbocker, 23, of Brattleboro, first started jumping when he was 10 years old and he will compete this weekend at Harris Hill. With a handful of juniors competing this year, Knickerbocker offered some of his reflections on what helped him develop his skills at a young age.
"Being exposed to a lot of different athletes and being able to travel a lot and experience from different coaches and perspectives contributed," said Knickerbocker. "It takes a long time to get to a jump this size, so when you start at a young age it's more important to work on skills on skis, balance and coordination."
Another fan favorite, Christopher Lamb, 26 of Andover, N.H., will return to the hill this weekend and will aim to do his best. Lamb has been skiing for 20 years and has competed at Harris Hill since 2001. He has two wins under his belt for the Winged Ski Rophy and broke the latest record in 2010 with a distance of 102 meters (335 feet). Tradition has it that whoever wins the trophy three times gets to "retire" it, and so Lamb needs one more win in order to take home the Tiffany's designed trophy for good.
However Lamb expressed that his studies as an undergraduate at Marlboro College may have not allowed him to train as much as he has in the past.
"It's definitely always a hope to retire the trophy, but I'm in school now and really haven't been training, so I'm just out here to have fun and do what I love to do and enjoy flying through the air," said Lamb.
Lamb, a former national team athlete, is now a sophomore in college studying environmental philosophy and feels that the lessons he learned from fellow athletes helped him the skills he has now as a ski jumper.
"Being around people who are above and below your ski level allows you watch and learn from them. You push and pull each other," said Lamb.
While there are few junior ski jumpers who compete in the area, for Lamb Harris Hill has been a place of pleasant remembrances.
"It's mostly nostalgic for me, I've been coming here since I was a little boy and it was one of the first big hills that I jumped and it's more about the memory. Some of these places you come back to, and even though it's 10 or 15 years later, it's still the same place and the same kind of feeling and I think there's something magical in that," said Lamb.
Lamb says that he can remember feeling scared competing on the old hill which he says was "sketchy" when it was windy. He also recalled starting from the top of the jump, which competitors no longer do because of the amount of speed that went into it.
The U-18 skiers expressed that their nerves run wild if it's windy, but most of all they said they are excited for a different adventure and challenge.
"I'm just excited to jump a new hill," said Malacinski.
Gamber said he hopes to place in the top five so he can take-on the Harris Hill target jump challenge. If competitors land closest or on the target, then the individual wins a cash prize. For others, their goal is simply to do well, which means going the furthest distance possible.
Competitors from Austria also believe that it's better for serious competitors to start jumping at a young age.
"It's better to jump as a small kid because you are small and light and it will help you with your future, that's perfect," said Florin Gugg, 21 of Klagenfurt, Austria. "Small kids love to jump on huge hills because maybe it's not so normal.
Gugg said his family and coaches were the most important aspects in helping him develop in to the sport, especially since his family were jumper enthusiasts as well. His father was a Bronze medalist for the winter Olympic Games for the Nordic Combined championship and his grandfather also competed in Nordic Combined. Aside from past family wins, the Austrian competitors hope to take home a win.
"We hope to get the Harris Hill trophy this Sunday, maybe one of our guys would be nice" said Gerald Percht, 33, of Austria, who is the coach at school in their home country for ski jumpers, nordic combined and cross-country skiing. Percht has competed at Harris Hill Tournament 15 years ago.
The Harris Hill Ski Jump tournament is this Saturday, Feb. 21, and Sunday, Feb. 21. Gates open at 10 a.m., the trial rounds begin at 11 a.m., the opening ceremony is at noon ,the competition begins at 12:45 p.m. and awards follow the competition. Tickets are free for those under six years olf, $15 for youth ages 6 to 12 and $20 for adults.