New Hampshire is well represented at the Olympic Games this year, with ten Granite Staters competing at Sochi.
That’s particularly true in Men’s Ski Jumping, with two out of three team members coming from New Hampshire: Nick Alexander of Lebanon and Nick Fairall of Andover.
Recently, NHPR visited the ski club where it all started for Fairall.
It’s a clear, cold day at Proctor Ski Area in Andover when Tim Norris pulls a wooden bench across the lodge patio.
“This is extremely low-tech,” he says with a slight smile.
With more than 35 years of coaching experience, he’s an old hand at teaching kids how to ski jump. Norris founded the Andover Outing Club back in the mid 1970s as a young coach at Proctor Academy. His Outing Club kids usually range from about seven to 14 years old.
And before he lets them hit the hills, they’ve got to model perfect posture on this narrow bench. Norris brings each child out of the lodge for one-on-one coaching.
“Ok, shoulders back…comfortably back. Then stick your navel out, with your shoulders back, like that," Norris says. He alternates between demonstrating the posture himself and gently pushing the boy's limbs, back, and head into position. "Ok, keep all that, and go ahead over into your in run. Does that feel a little bit different?"
"Yep," his student says while concentrating on keeping everything in place. Once one of his ski jumpers has gotten into a good position, he prompts them to turn their head toward the lodge window, so they can see the posture for themselves.
"That looks really good. You’ve got to do that all the time now," Norris says.
The club runs on volunteers. Norris depends a lot on parents to help with building up the facilities and recording jumps to critique. He uses the kids’ dues to buy communal skiing equipment. This is a low-cost, but high-quality club.
And it’s a rare opportunity to even be able to learn the sport.
New Hampshire is one of only 13 states that even have a ski jumping club.
US Olympic ski jumper Nick Fairall learned the basics from Norris before heading off to more intense coaching in Lake Placid, New York—the mecca of eastern ski jumping. But Norris says he’s not the only one to get his start at the Outing Club.
“Well, we’ve had several Olympians. The one group of kids, they’re all the same age. Jen Henkley, Carl Van Loan, and Kris Freeman. Who are all, actually skiing together, and they were all jumping and cross-countrying," he says. "Chris Lamb is on the US team, but he didn’t quite make the Olympics. He was the fourth. The Olympics is the big reward, and they only take three kids in the country.”
Coaching kids in ski jumping is tricky business. One of the biggest challenges? Just getting them into jumping skis. Norris says for some kids, it only takes a few weeks going over hills in the easier alpine skis before switching to jumping skis. But he says it’s normal for kids to take up to a year to gain balance and confidence. Eight year-old Bode Fanjoy has been at it for two years, and his heavy skis tower over his head as he explains why they're so difficult to maneuver.
“They have no edges. So you’re sliding everywhere. The alpines have the edges so you can turn better, but these, when you get them on, you’re like sliding…because watch!"
Fanjoy throws the skis down, and starts moving them over the snow, showing off how well they slide.
"The other ones [alpine skis] would do that now, watch, they can move sideways easier. If they move sideways easier, then they don’t’ have any edges,” he says.
Ski jumping is kind of like the long jumping of Nordic sports. But it’s not just about how far you go. It’s also how good your form is while launching off the hill. Hills vary in size based on skill level, and they’re assigned numbers, which describe how far a skier can safely go. At Proctor, there is a 10, 18, 30 and 38-meter hill. Lengthwise, the 38 meter jump works out to about half a city block.
Most of Norris’s kids at practice today are on the 18…but a few are already high up on the 38. Granted, a 38 is a long way from national level jumps at 120 or even 200-meters. But promise shows early.
When asked if he ever sees Olympic potential in his kids right away, Norris is quick with an answer.
"Yeah. I do. I’ve had that thought in the last week. We’ve got a couple of kids I’m thinking that way about," he says.
Olympian Nick Fairall was one of those kids. Sitting on the ski lodge patio, Norris points toward the four jumps clustered on the hills straight ahead.
“So like that, the jump up there that probably looks pretty big to you. That big jump? Well, he was going off that when he was eight, and doing it pretty well," he says. "And then he was starting to go off even bigger jumps, like ones twice as big as that, when he was 11 and 12.”
But it's not just the big feats that stir pride in the coach. Norris let's out a whoop and breaks into applause for one of his students thundering down the hill, before make a quick aside to a spectating parent, "First day in jumping skis!"
Although the Andover Outing Club has turned out a number of national level jumpers, for Norris it’s all about the little steps to get there--like the first day a kid straps on their jumping skis. And long after, doing actual jumps on the little bump of the 10 meter hill--that you can barely see from the lodge patio.
“You have kids that just really have trouble getting to that, and a week later are on the 18," he says. "I mean, kids really, you know, come around fast. If they want to. And the thing is not to decide I’m going on a bigger jump tomorrow. You don’t worry about it tomorrow! You worry about it that day. And if you feel like you could…do it.”
So far in Sochi, the US Men haven’t medaled in the ski jumping events. They’ll have one more chance with the Large Hill competition. Qualifications are on Friday, with the event on Saturday.