AK: Summer ski jumping

Last week, the Nordic Ski Association of Anchorage (NSAA) was able to have summertime ski jumping at the Hilltop Ski Area. This is the first summer ski jump facility in the state.

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One of the skiers looks out at the ski jump facility from the top of the 40-meter hill. (Photo by Ammon Swenson, Alaska Public Media - Anchorage)
One of the skiers looks out at the ski jump facility from the top of the 40-meter hill. (Photo by Ammon Swenson, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)

The NSAA is a group that helps kids learn and compete in various winter sports. Among them ski jumping. For many young Alaskan jumpers, the only time they have to practice is when there is actual snow to ski on.

Karen Compton is the program director for NSAA.

“Some families have been able to come up with the money to send their kids outside and summer jump in the Lower 48,” Compton said. “We feel strongly that all of our kids should have the opportunity and it shouldn’t be limited.”

Compton along with a batch of volunteers have worked over the last two years to bring a summertime outdoor ski jump to Anchorage, the first of its kind in Alaska. Built on an older, broken down jump, the new ski jump was a huge, expensive project.

The Hilltop summer ski jump. (Photo by Ammon Swenson, Alaska Public Media - Anchorage)
The Hilltop summer ski jump. (Photo by Ammon Swenson, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)

The facility is built using a combination of steel tracks, water and a special plastic grass surface to simulate slippery snow and allow for year-round ski jumping. Kids align their skis with metal tracks and then slide down the plastic, grassy jump, flying through the air. Someone is normally standing by, monitoring the wetness level of the grass with a hose. Wetter grass means faster speeds and some of the beginners are not quite ready for that pace yet.

Zak Hammill is the ski jump coach for the older kids, but he notes that the age range of their skiers is highly varied.

“I believe our youngest is four. And we have adult jumping, and I think our oldest is 66 years old,” Hammill said. “So if you’re a little toddler and you can walk and you can ski, you can ski jump, and if you can still walk in your older ages, then you can ski jump as well.”

Hammill said that skiing on the plastic grass jumps is not very different from skiing on snow.

“It’s actually more consistent, which is nice,” Hammill said. “Living up here in Alaska, or basically in any winter climate, you get inconsistent skiing conditions, but with summer it’s always the same.”

Hammill said, in recent years, it’s been challenging to get kids well prepared for competitions. Between lack of summer practice equipment and weak winter conditions in Anchorage, the kids only get major practice right before out of state competitions.

One of the young members of the Nordic Ski Association of Anchorage flies off of one of the new summer ski jumps. The Hilltop ski jump facility is the first of its kind to allow for ski jumping in the summer in Alaska. (Photo by Wesley Early, Alaska Public Media - Anchorage)
One of the young members of the Nordic Ski Association of Anchorage flies off of one of the new summer ski jumps. The Hilltop ski jump facility is the first of its kind to allow for ski jumping in the summer in Alaska. (Photo by Wesley Early, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)

“Last winter was extremely brutal,” Hammill said. “We went down to Junior Nationals in Salisbury, Connecticut. None of my elite skiers had skied hills that size all winter. We got like two days of jumping in and the next day was the competition. It was just kinda like, ‘Alright guys, I know you haven’t trained and we’re not really prepared but just go out there and do your best. Still. Without the training, you just can’t be that competitive.”

Natasha Mattoon, the other ski jump coach, is originally from Wisconsin, where outdoor ski jumps are easily accessible. She says the new facility will drastically improve results.

“It’s gonna be great,” Mattoon said. “In the Midwest, where I’m from, they have summer training, and you can really see how quickly the kids develop just because they can jump all year-round. So now that we have the summer program, and we can jump winter and summer, these kids will improve at a much quicker rate.”

But what do the kids think of their new jumps? Carter Burbaker is 10 years old and he’s been skiing for about 3 years now.

“I think having summer jumps here in Alaska helps a lot because we get a lot more training in, we can get better, and we can excel faster,” Burbaker said. “And fly farther and have better places in the competitions.”

6-year-old Reilly Cooper skies down the 20 meter hill. (Photo by Ammon Swenson, Alaska Public Media - Anchorage)
6-year-old Reilly Cooper skies down the 20 meter hill. (Photo by Ammon Swenson, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)

Even the youngest jumpers like six-year-old Reilly Cooper are showing more confidence.

“The scariest part about ski jumping is when you first start jump skis, because jump skis… the heels flip up and you start crossing and you crash for like that whole day,” Cooper said. “And then next thing you know, you don’t crash. I didn’t crash today.”

Program director Compton said a dream like becoming an Olympic level skier is a closer reality for the kids to grasp with the newer facility.

“Within probably 10 years we’ll have Olympians,” Compton said. “Because we have strong skiers. Now we have added the ski jumping piece. And the ability to train intensely in both of those sports will produce national team members and Olympians. It just will.”

One of the skiers flies off the 40 meter ski jump. (Photo by Wesley Early, Alaska Public Media - Anchorage)
One of the skiers flies off the 40 meter ski jump. (Photo by Wesley Early, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)

Even if the kids aren’t necessarily here to become Olympians, there are other benefits. A lot of the kids gain new friends and confidence from doing an extreme sport like ski jumping.

Burbaker said while he enjoys doing other types of sports, ski jumping gives him a feeling unlike any other.

“There’s no sports where you really get to go and fly. And here at ski jumping you get to fly and it’s really fun. I really like flying.”

Note: This story contained contributions from Alaska Public Media intern Ammon Swenson.