Aerials training at Rat Lake

Posted: Tuesday, February 19, 2002

PARK CITY, Utah -- It looks like a blast when you see it on TV. You can see why the kids dig it.

It's these aerials skiers we're talking about. The men and women who train in the summer by skiing down a long elevated slide, getting major amplitude off a ramp, then doing a Randy (2 1/2 twists), or a triple full (three twists), or a triple back somersault in layout position with a pike at the end before landing -- hopefully feet-first -- in a big, deep swimming pool.

Cool. Refreshing, even.

But it wasn't always that neat, man, for the earliest members of the United States freestyle skiing team.

Jeff Wintersteen, the American coach of this frightfully well-behaved collection of moguls skiers and aerialists, still has nightmares about his exposure to America's first training pond in the 1980s, the time before MTV and The Deuce "discovered" the sport in America.

"Park Smalley was my first coach, and he had what he called the Great Western Freestyle Center,'' Wintersteen said of the practice pond near Lake Placid, N.Y.

The adjective "great" was a little misleading, however.

"It was this dinky little ramp that dumped into a pond we called Rat Lake,'' Wintersteen explained. "The rats would slide down the plastic on the ramp and drown. You had to scoop them out in the morning before you jumped.

"To be an aerialist back then was a little depressing.''

Rat Lake might have been an upgrade, however, over the training pond still used occasionally by the Australian aerials team. Most of the vermin in Rat Lake, at least, had expired. The snakes and leeches in the Aussie pond were very much alive.

"They put fish in it to try to eat the leeches," explained Alisa Camplin, a surprise gold medalist Monday in the women's aerials at Deer Valley. "When I first began jumping there, it was copper brown water with, like, scum all over it."

"It's still pretty horrifying, really disgusting,'' added fellow Aussie freestyler Adrian Costa, who has since had the good sense to switch to moguls. "They don't use it much anymore. But at least it didn't have any crocs. The water was way too cold for them!"

Even that was an improvement over the way Eric Bergoust got his introduction to what eventually became alpine gymnastics.

If they weren't worth retelling, a safety-conscious person wouldn't repeat the stories about Bergoust diving off the two-story chimney of his family home onto mattresses pulled out on the lawn. Or how he and his brothers would set a mini-trampoline on the side of a bridge, wait for an unsuspecting motorist to happen along and then dive off the tramp and into the river below.

"We had to find ways to entertain ourselves," Bergoust explains casually.

But if Bergoust defends his Nagano gold medal in today's men's aeriels, it will be because the sport has come a long way from Rat Lake and the Loch Leech.

Today, Bergoust and American teammate Joe Pack -- the Nos. 2 and 3 qualifiers -- have their choice of quality water ramps on which to train. America has two, one here and one at Lake Placid. The Canadians have a world-class facility at Whistler, where Camplin now trains there.

"As far as facilities, we now have the best aerial facilities in the world for summer training," Wintersteen said. "That's really helped us become the best aerials nation in the world, especially in men's aerials.

"I feel good that we've given our athletes their best chance to do well. There's not much more we can do. Now it's in their court."

Note that he didn't say "in their pond."

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