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Vt. ski jump builds Olympic dreams

Olympic discipline had spirits soaring at venerable Harris Hill

With the protests of female jumpers successful, athletes such as Karin Friberg can concentrate on their form as they point toward Sochi, Russia, in 2014.

Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff

With the protests of female jumpers successful, athletes such as Karin Friberg can concentrate on their form as they point toward Sochi, Russia, in 2014.

BRATTLEBORO, Vt. - When most ski jumpers climb to the summit of Harris Hill, they can see all the way to New Hampshire.

But Karin Friberg, 22, who routinely trains with the US women’s ski jumping team, can see Sochi, Russia.

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“That’s definitely my goal right now,’’ said the University of Minnesota nutrition major who was competing in the collegiate class of the 90th Harris Hill Ski Jump competition, which was held Feb. 18-19. “Qualify for the world championships in 2013 and then the Olympic Games in 2014 in Russia.’’

For female jumpers around the world, the Sochi Games will be a dream come true. Although men’s ski jumping was one of the eight sports in the first Winter Olympics in 1924, women have been left out in the cold. They will compete in the Games for the first time in 2014.

“The old-timers would say it’s too dangerous for girls, they’ll fall and get hurt, they won’t be able to have kids, they were not strong enough,’’ said Rex Bell, Harris Hill’s chief of competition.

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At the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, 15 women lost a lawsuit filed in the Canadian Supreme Court. The court ruled that prohibiting women from ski jumping was discrimination, but that only the International Olympic Committee could remedy the problem. The IOC finally relented last April, prompting cheers in Park City, Utah.

“We all got up early and listened in to the session,’’ said Friberg. “It was more relief than surprise because they’ve been fighting since 2002. Now it’s finally our time to be athletes and not protesters anymore. It took a very long time. I was very excited.’’

Friberg has a kindred soul in Sandy Harris, daughter of Fred Harris, who built Harris Hill in 1922.

“These women that come here are world-class athletes that train as hard as men; the women are amazing,’’ said Sandy Harris, 59, who no longer ski jumps but still races sidecars at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. “I guess I inherited my father’s adventurous gene.’’

Ski jumpers can see clear to New Hampshire from the Harris Hill Ski Jump in Brattleboro, Vt.

Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff

Ski jumpers can see clear to New Hampshire from the Harris Hill Ski Jump in Brattleboro, Vt.

Ski jumpers owe a debt of gratitude to Fred Harris - also known as “The Man who put America on Skis’’ - for building the only 90-meter jump in New England.

In 1908, while attending Dartmouth College, Harris helped build Dartmouth’s first ski jump. He also started the Dartmouth Outing Club and organized a Winter Carnival, which gained popularity by inviting female guests for the weekend. A silver-winged trophy is still presented in his name.

“He had an absolute wish,’’ said Sandy. “He wanted people to be outside in the winter. His motto was, ‘If you can’t do your best, don’t do it.’

“It was hard to meet his standards of perfection when he decided to build a ski jump. It became a world-class ski jump. There were no cutting corners.’’

But some years, it was an uphill battle. Occasionally, there was no snow. World War II disrupted the meet, and more recently Harris Hill was shut down in 2005 when rotting wood was discovered.

The Brattleboro community rallied around it and local volunteers raised nearly a half-million dollars to improve it. Skiing resumed in 2008.

This year’s two-day competition featured more than 40 of the world’s best ski jumpers from the United States and six other countries: Canada, Ukraine, Czech Republic, Austria, Norway, and Slovenia.

For the first time, it has been sanctioned as an International Ski Federation event.

This year, 4,200 spectators flocked to a muddy cornfield to watch ski jumpers travel 60 miles per hour and fly farther than a football field.

On the first day of competition, a warming sun made things pleasant for spectators who drank beer, ate Thai food and designer pizzas, sat on bales of hay in front of a bonfire, and rang cowbells.

Tom Petty’s “Free Falling,’’ and The Band’s classic “The Weight’’ were appropriate tunes ringing out on the loudspeakers between jumps.

Weight is a big issue among ski jumpers. A loss of 2 pounds could mean a 10-foot-longer jump.

“The lighter you are, the better,’’ said Bell, who said that body mass is strictly regulated, with penalties such as shorter skis with less lift for violators.

“The International Ski Federation has a table. Guys were getting bulimic - so thin and so light - that it was getting unhealthy.’’

On the hill, snow guns brought in from Mount Snow Resort made for a packed, icy course and officials spread chemicals to minimize melting.

A team of five judges scored jumpers on a combination of style, distance, and landing.

Older, first-time spectators who grew up in the 1970s watching ABC’s “Wide World of Sports’’ with its classic “Agony of Defeat’’ clip of a tumbling Yugoslavian skier were surprised at the smooth landings of the athletes.

Not a single ski jumper fell on the 700-foot hill all weekend, in practice or competition.

“People think ski jumping is so dangerous, but it’s really not,’’ said Scott Smith, coach of the US Ski and Snowboard Association Midwest central division. “Look at football. How many times do they stop it because of injuries? A lot. We can go through a whole event and nobody even falls. Happens all the time.’’

There was one fatality at Harris Hill, in 1975. Jeff Wright, 22, a member of the US Ski Team, broke his neck on a practice run, according to Harris Hill historian Dana Sprague.

Ski jumpers say getting the aerodynamics right at takeoff is the hardest part of the jump.

“Roll down the window and hold your hand out when your driving at 60 miles per hour,’’ said Bell. “If you move your hand up a little or down a little it makes a big difference aerodynamically. It takes years to perfect your technique.’’

Two-time Olympian Anders Johnson of Park City, Utah, won this year’s FIS Cup with the longest jump of the competition, 94.5 meters, and a total of 255.5 points. The US captured the top three spots in the competition.

“Harris Hill is fun,’’ said Johnson. “It’s pretty hard to describe ski jumping. It’s the only feeling I’ve ever gotten where you feel totally weightless, like you’re flying. You’re playing with the air just like a soaring bird would.’’

Friberg won the women’s collegiate class. The secret, she said, is mind over matter.

“It’s about body awareness and control,’’ she said, “because you are doing something that physics is telling you not to do.’’

Stan Grossfeld can be reached at grossfeld@globe.com.
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