PARK CITY, UTAH
Drive up a long, winding road into the hills above Park City, Utah, and you might spot a ski jumper soaring through the air over the meadow grass. At the Winter Sports Park, skiing and sledding aren't just for winter anymore.
Athletes spend the summer and fall honing their skills in freestyle and Nordic ski jumping, or practice luge racing. Tourists roar down the bobsled track, or even try their hand at the luge.
Some of these participants are preparing for world competitions or the 1998 Winter Olympics. Others are future Olympic hopefuls. The serious summer training occurs on the ski jumping tracks.
Freestyle jumpers slide down ramps covered with stiff plastic, spin and flip high in the air, then land in a swimming pool. Nordic jumpers, going for distance rather than acrobatics, slide down a ceramic surface, land on a hill lined with plastic mats, then reduce speed by skiing over surfaces of sod and sawdust.
For Nordic jumpers, the skills and techniques closely match what they will need in the winter. But freestyle skiers have to adapt to one difference, says John Bower, director of ski jumps and operations for the park. "They land on a flat surface in the swimming pool and on a slope in the winter," he explains, "so they have to adjust to making a one-quarter extra turn in the winter when the ground is sloping downhill under them."
Safety is a feature of summer jumping. Nordic jumpers who fall slide along smooth plastic to a stop, rather than facing an uneven snow surface. There have been only four injuries in over 10,000 jumps on the park's two tracks.
Freestyle skiers hit the surface harder on water than on a sloping hillside, but they find water a much more forgiving surface. "It's the safest way to add new elements to your jumps," says Sean Curtis, a visiting member of the British team. "We repeat a new jump about 100 times over water before ever doing it on snow."
On the Olympic luge track, one of only two in the United States, summer activity focuses more on fun. Most athletes in training are part of the national junior development program. The sleds use wheels on a concrete track, which is slower than sled runners on ice. So the athletes become accustomed to the feel of the sleds, but must wait for winter for serious training. Meanwhile, there is also opportunity for the public to use the track - in winter it is reserved for the athletes.
Anyone over 50 inches tall can pay $27 for a run down the track, and Bower estimates between 300 and 400 people will give it a try before Park City's summer season ends in October.
Will any of these summer adaptations of winter sports ever become sports in themselves? Bower predicts that summer Nordic jumping will quickly gain in popularity. "After the turn of the century, I think we'll see more Nordic jumping in the summer than in the winter, at least in areas where tradition doesn't hold it back," he says. "The synthetic surface is a lot more consistent than snow, which can be icy or slushy depending on weather conditions. And more people will want to come out and watch the competition when they don't have to stand in freezing weather...."
Bower doesn't see Nordic jumping becoming a part of the summer Olympics, but summer competitions are already held in many parts of the world.
Freestyle jumping has not caught on as a summer competition, perhaps because divers already perform similar skills in summer competitions, without a pair of boards strapped to their feet. And jumpers making their way out of the swimming pool hardly seem eager to make a summer sport out of an activity that requires swimming while wearing skis. Still, for $5 per car, spectators can watch the jumpers in action.