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Reinstated, ski jumping encounters steep hill

By T.D. Thornton
Globe Correspondent / December 9, 2010

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After a 30-year absence, ski jumping at the college level has been cleared for takeoff.

The question is, will it soar?

Last June, board members of the United States Collegiate Ski and Snowboard Association voted to reintroduce ski jumping and Nordic combined events for the 2010-11 winter season. But because college jumping hasn’t been sanctioned since 1980, the sport has skipped a generation, creating a gap in awareness, experience, and available training facilities that could be an obstacle to restoring the once-popular pastime to a sustainable level.

“When the NCAA eliminated jumping, that was the death knell of the sport in the United States,’’ said Mark Sullivan, president of the USCSA. “A wider base was dissolved. If you were a kid who jumped, you were either good enough to make the national team or you gave it up.’’

John Fulton captained the University of New Hampshire jumpers in the 1970s. Upon graduation, he was hired to coach the team, unaware a ban was in the pipeline. Unlike other sports that go dormant, he said ski jumping was particularly endangered because of its infrastructure.

“Once the program was lost, it was a liability to keep the ski jumps,’’ Fulton said. “They bulldozed them for insurance reasons.’’

In the early 1900s, almost every Northeast community with a sizable hill had a public jump. In 1913, Dartmouth College hosted the nation’s first college competition. By 1922, New England was a major player, with world-class facilities like the Olympic-size Harris Hill in Brattleboro, Vt., and the country’s tallest ski jump, a 198-footer in Berlin, N.H. Each venue regularly hosted the US nationals into the 1970s.

In 1980 — two months after the Lake Placid Winter Olympics — the ski rules committee of the NCAA voted to eliminate jumping. The stated issues had to do with expenses, liability, and a lack of qualified athletes.

But Sullivan and Fulton said factional bickering really drove the decision. They both recalled a behind-the-scenes conflict that centered on schools that were weak in jumping wanting to axe that discipline, because the way ski meets were scored under NCAA rules, a team’s Alpine and Nordic points were combined.

Sullivan explained the USCSA doesn’t insist teams be funded directly through athletic departments, like the NCAA does. So the USCSA can recognize clubs and nonvarsity teams from smaller colleges, and it even allows NCAA-affiliated schools to join, enabling 4,500 athletes from 180 institutions to compete in ski and snowboard events nationwide.

Bringing back ski jumping started off as a personal crusade for some members within the USCSA. But once the idea made it onto the agenda at the annual board meeting, the vote was unanimous.

“It’s a significant endeavor,’’ said Sullivan. “I look at it as more of a social responsibility to the sport.’’

But is it practical?

“I’ve got athletes who are interested,’’ said ski coach Harry Ricker of the University of Maine at Farmington, “but no jump.’’

With the USCSA eastern qualifiers three weeks away, Ricker said that UMF hasn’t even officially approved jumping. He’s arranged for practices on land to teach basics, but to get his team airborne, Ricker is scrambling for training time on one of the four active ski jumps in New Hampshire — the only remaining state in the nation with high school ski jumping.

Catie Stone, a freshman at the University of Vermont, is in an even tougher bind: She jumped for John Stark Regional High School in New Hampshire, and was accepted into college believing her jumping days had come to an end. The USCSA decision over the summer buoyed her spirits, yet she is a one-woman team without a coach, practice facility, her own skis, or even transportation to competitions.

“I’m the only one so far,’’ said Stone, who has been trying to recruit teammates. She said she has received USCSA assurance that she will be allowed to participate even if she does not meet UVM’s eight-student minimum for forming a club sport. “There are a lot of skiers on campus, but most of them don’t have experience jumping.’’

Fulton, who has coached the Concord (N.H.) High School jumpers since 1987, said reinstatement at the college level will encourage younger kids to take up the sport.

“And it certainly wouldn’t hurt New Hampshire ski jumping if East Coast schools started recruiting them,’’ Fulton said.

Sullivan said right now, the dominant college programs are in the West, and that those teams will have an advantage when they jump for the USCSA National Championships at Park City, Utah, in March.

But he expects the balance of power to shift as college ski jumping takes off.

“What we’re really looking to here in New England are the 12- and 13-year-olds who are five and six years out,’’ Sullivan said. “Ultimately, the Northeast will drive the sport.’’