This past Sunday I drove west about 30 miles, to Brattleboro, Vermont, where the best of what a core group of people in a community can do was on full display. From the early 1920s, when outdoor visionary Fred Harris, founder of both the Brattleboro Outing Club and the Dartmouth Outing Club, brought Brattleboro to the forefront of ski jumping in New England, Harris Hill has seen people fly.
I don’t know of any event more spectacular to see in person than a bona fide ski-jumping competition, when some of the best young jumpers in the world converge. About 15 years ago, I made a point to bring my two ski-enthusiast young boys to Harris Hill during Brattleboro’s Winter Carnival. We trudged as high as we could get, sometimes slipping in the snow on the steep inclines, then hauling up again. And when we got high enough to be where the jumpers took off, they’d swoosh by, and then suddenly with a sound like a flock of geese taking off, they’d just soar, their bodies leaning forward, their skis splayed to the side, before landing, way below us, like miniature replicas of what we’d just seen up close.
There was a time when ski jumping was one of the elite sports at many New England high schools. But school officials grew wary of the potential for lawsuits if a student were hurt. No matter how many football players broke bones, or basketball players took elbows to the face, ski jumping just looked really dangerous, especially if school administrators did not grow up with the sport.
So one by one, ski jumping all but disappeared from the New England winter landscape. Brattleboro, and Harris Hill, held on long after it probably should have succumbed. There was too much history, too many memories; the sport was in the blood of so many local people, and the competitions continued.
But the physical structure of the jump, as important to the safety of the athletes as a runway is to a pilot, deteriorated beyond what simple goodwill and nostalgia and love could repair. The hill needed real renovation, real funding. So a group of people took charge. That’s the way it has always worked in small communities. A few people with a lot of drive gather more people, and then a movement is underway. It’s how towns keep moving forward, with or without governments propping things up. They raised nearly $500,000 —think of that! — to make their ski jump one of the best in the country. They even put in nifty stairs for spectators to use, and from what I could tell looking around, they pretty much spruced up everything — press box, landing zone — just as you would any local landmark that helps define who you are as a town. Now once again, Harris Hill is one of the premier venues in the country.
So that’s why I came to the hill Sunday. The two-day event was a big deal. The competition had started the day before, and each day some 4,000-plus people walked through a field of Olympic-caliber mud to the jump area. The sky was clear blue; the sun took away winter’s chill and bathed everyone in a springlike glow. The athletes came from seven states and two European countries. Among them were some of the best junior jumpers in the world: young athletes, female and male, with so many jumps ahead of them, here and across the ocean. They dream of the Winter Olympics, if not the one a year away, then the next one, or the one after.
I climbed again, remembering again how steep a 90-meter jump can be, and I stopped right alongside the takeoff. And again I saw them speed by, 60 miles an hour of intense focus; then they launched. And the child in everyone who was there wanted to gasp in delight to see these people fly.