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Ski Town pumps out Olympians

Posted: Tuesday, February 05, 2002

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. -- Tourists fly in from thousands of miles away to float down the fluffy powder at this Rocky Mountain resort. In town, locals pump water onto a hill so their kids can race on ice.

At Ski Town, USA, they'll do whatever it takes to produce future Olympians.

''You need icy slopes to produce great ski racers,'' said Olympic silver medalist Billy Kidd, director of skiing at the Steamboat Ski Resort.

This former ranching community 160 miles west of Denver has produced 53 Winter Olympians, more than any other U.S. city. Sixteen of them are heading to Salt Lake City for the 2002 Olympics.

Two Steamboat Olympians have won bronze medals, Nelson Carmichael in the 1992 moguls and Shannon Dunn in the 1998 snowboard halfpipe.

The town's secret is Howelsen Hill, a 440 foot vertical slope one block from downtown that is set up for freestyle, snowboarding, jumping, alpine and cross country. The city of 10,000 spends $500,000 a year, or 2.5 percent of its budget, to operate the park.

Howelsen is not fancy. The chair rarely runs. Most of the time youngsters with the 89-year-old Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club ride a poma lift two minutes up the hill. Kids, taught from an early age to play in the snow, sometimes ride it barefoot.

City Manager Paul Hughes can watch through his office window as children as young as 10 jump off Howelsen's 90-meter jump, one of six jumps on the hill.

''To be able to do that on an average day is absolutely special,'' Hughes says.

Howelsen even offers a lunch special -- a $3 lift ticket for runs from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Moose Barrows, who raced with Kidd years ago on the University of Colorado ski team, says most local children learn to jump and ski on Howelsen.

''Most great racers have jumping in their background. Guys like Jean-Claude Killy,'' said Barrows, who lost to Killy when he took a spectacular fall in the 1968 Olympic downhill.

''If you tell a kid to ski through poles it is not natural. When a kid goes off a jump it is natural.''

The town's commitment goes way beyond busing kids to the lighted hill after school.

Children can begin as young as 4 in the private, nonprofit Sports Club, which had 625 student athletes in the past year. Serious racers can pay as much as $2,500.

There are work programs to help parents and athletes pay for part of the cost, but the club's $1.1 million budget isn't enough for the 70 coaches and 75 events each winter.

The town is seeking more state aid to remain competitive. Barrows sponsors a fund-raising golf tournament each year to make sure every child in the valley has enough money to ski. His own 4-year-old son had already learned to ski before he died of a heart defect.

''The town takes these kids under its wing,'' Hughes said.

The success of the alpine and Nordic ski programs attracts families with promising winter athletes.

''Then and now, the schools were quite liberal in letting kids pursue skiing as long as their grades were up,'' recalls Loris Werner, brother of ski great Buddy Werner, and himself a former U.S. Olympic team member.

The club and the school district jointly pay for a coordinator who monitors the grades and conduct of young skiers, and the school superintendent is on the club's board.

''Steamboat Springs is a textbook example in what we're after in club programs,'' said Bill Marolt, president of the U.S. Ski Team. ''It's a marvelous story of community involvement, leadership and commitment to the youth in their community, giving them the opportunity to succeed.''



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