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Greene: Harris Hill

02/16/12 7:55AM By Stephanie Greene
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(Host) Brattleboro ’s Harris Hill Ski Jump takes place over the weekend of February 18, attracting athletes from all over the world. Recently, commentator Stephanie Greene chatted with a hill champion about what ski jumping was like forty years ago - and how it’s changed.

(Greene) If you’ve ever marveled at the courage and gymnastic grace of Kelly Clark or Forest Bailey on snowboard or other stunts performed by freestyle skiers, you’d do well to remember that the granddaddy of all winter extreme sports is the ski jump.

In 1922, Fred Harris spearheaded the construction of New England ’s only 90 meter ski jump, in Brattleboro. There have been annual international competitions there ever since, barring a few snowless winters and a three year closure for reconstruction from 2006 through ‘08.

For those of us who find it challenging enough just getting down the mountain in one piece, deciding to hurl oneself off said mountain entirely seems kind of crazy. So when I got to talk to a three-time winner of the Harris Hill competition, Hugh Barber, I had to ask, why?

Barber is a native of Brattleboro . He won in ‘72 and ‘73, then retired the trophy in ‘74. He’s one of only five ski jumpers in the history of the hill to do that, and he doesn’t seem crazy at all. In fact, he insists it isn’t a big deal. He started out going over snow bumps – or moguls - as a kid and then gradually worked up to bigger local jumps.

Ski jump coach Alan Sargent used to bring groups of kids to the 165-foot jump in Bear Mountain, New York. And when they were comfortable with that, they were ready for Harris Hill.

In the sixties, there were more than 75 kids involved in Brattleboro’s jumping programs. The programs all fed into each other - from junior and high school levels up through collegiate, Easterns and Nationals.

In those days, there was no local ice hockey league, no snow boarding or freestyle options, so many young athletes were drawn into jumping. And it helped many of them go on to college

Barber maintains that with good training ski jumping is actually safer than freestyle or ski racing, where competitors reach speeds of 90 miles per hour. Harris Hill is designed to send the skier out rather than up, staying fairly low on the hill. It’s packed hard - so if you fall you'll slide and not catch a ski.

Forty years have brought a few changes. Now jumpers wear helmets and are lighter — women do really well in the sport. Skis are wider, and during the jump they’re held in a V shape as opposed to parallel, to achieve greater, more aerodynamic distance. And there are far fewer ski jumping programs now, what with all the competition from hockey, snow boarding and freestyle skiing.

Barber says that Harris Hill was always a pleasure to jump. There was usually a good wind coming off the Retreat Meadows for loft - and good visibility. “You can feel apprehensive when you’re at the top of the tower, swaying with the wind,” he adds enthusiastically, “but once you’re in that track, it’s a lot of fun.”

I’m reassured, but I still plan to enjoy the competition on terra firma, thanks.
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