In spring 2020, after an abrupt end to my ski season due to the cancellation of USA Nordic Junior Championships and a ski jumping injury to my elbow, and with the end of my senior year of high school drawing nearer, I was still unsure what I wanted to do after graduating. A large part of me knew that I wanted to continue my Nordic combined ski career into college. The problem that I faced was that no university in the US offered a school Nordic combined team, largely because of the country’s small number of large ski jumps in college towns, and even more so because ski jumping is such a seemingly insignificant activity to most Americans when compared to sports like basketball and football. I knew that I had the option to stay in my hometown of Negaunee, MI, and use the Suicide Bowl ski jumps and trails that I had trained on for the entirety of my middle and high school days and attend nearby Northern Michigan University, but I wanted to experience a new place if it was at all possible. I knew I could also call it quits for Nordic skiing or just continue to cross-country ski, but I really didn’t want the progress I had made in jumping over the last few years to be for nothing, and Junior Championships being cancelled only made me hungrier to get better and continue ski jumping.
As college decision day drew nearer, I was still unsure about what would be the best option for me, and even more uncertain about in what manner I wanted to continue skiing. Most signs were pointing toward heading out west to Salt Lake City, UT, attending the University of Utah, and jumping at Park City whenever I had time. Most other options involved giving up ski jumping entirely, and while I liked the campuses and the programs offered at the schools I visited, those things still could not override my love of Nordic combined. While I puzzled over what to do, another option worked its way to the top of my plate of possibilities. USA Nordic, the organization in charge of ski jumping and Nordic combined, was developing plans for a student-athlete Nordic combined program at a small college in the Adirondack Mountains of New York, called Paul Smith’s College.
Known historically for its programs in forestry, hospitality, and culinary arts, Paul Smith’s College didn’t begin as my top option for colleges, but it did offer impressive biology and psychology courses that attracted me to the school. Paul Smith’s had just developed a new 5K section of trails which were to be FIS homologated, on top of 50K or so of other walking, hiking, biking, and ski trails all on part of the 14,000-some acres that the school owned. Best of all, Paul Smith’s College was located only 35 minutes away from the newly renovated ski jumps at Lake Placid, which were quickly becoming the best place in the country for ski jumpers to train. The only catch that stood out was that the PSC x USA Nordic training program was brand new, and if I chose to go, I would be one of the guinea pigs in the first run of the new program.
After some serious thinking and weighing options against each other I decided to just pull the trigger and commit to Paul Smith’s College to be one of two Nordic combined skiers, along with my friend Aidan Ripp, to test out the initial year of the program during 2020/21. I was excited to take the leap into the next part of my skiing career.
Paul Smith’s College was very fortunate to be able to operate completely in-person for this entire school year, enforcing strict safety policies to keep staff and students safe and healthy. Thankfully, I was able to take all of my classes face-to-face and train in small groups with the rest of the ski team–including biathletes who joined the new program with PSC and US Biathlon. In the fall, the training consisted mostly of roller skiing and plyometrics to stay conditioned for jumping. We were not able to train on the hills at Lake Placid because they still needed to be graded to the FIS specifics, and had been stripped of their summer jumping plastic before the pandemic hit. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t majorly bummed out by not being able to jump before snow fell, but the fact that I was able to train with other skiers and attend all of my classes in person made the overall experience great. Some of my favorite days were spent getting lost on the single-track trails that wormed their way through the woods, going on long hikes in the Adirondack mountains and enjoying their fantastic views, and all the while sharing those amazing experiences with my teammates.
I ended my first semester tired of roller skiing and running and ready for some real skiing. Early snow didn’t dump the way I was used to, neither at home in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula nor in the Adirondacks, and so when the ski jumps in Lake Placid were finally set to open up on the little snow they had, my friend Aidan and I were ecstatic. Neither of us had jumped since the previous July, except for a few short self-coached sessions on the 70-meter hill at Coleraine, MN, in early January, and we were both very excited to be able to jump the 90-meter normal hill and the infamous 120-meter big hill at Placid. A few days after the hills opened, we got our COVID tests and hit the road for the 19-some hour drive (only 13 when the Canadian border is open) to Lake Placid.
The hills were awe-inspiring; neither of us had jumped at Lake Placid for nearly two years and we were both excited to get going on some normal and big hill training. The conditions were nearly perfect for most of the winter, which meant there were fewer distractions to get in the way of improving on the hill, and with slots for practice nearly every day I was able to balance cross-country skiing and ski jumping easily in order to get the best development I could for the season. A normal week in the winter would begin on Monday as a rest day from training, with 3 classes in the morning and a lab in the afternoon. Wednesday and Friday mornings were spent in the same 3 classes, but with an open afternoon for cross-country skiing or ski jumping, depending on my training plan for that week. Tuesdays and Thursdays were open in the morning for training, with two classes in a row starting right after noon. This training and school schedule gave me plenty of time to recover from workouts and get all of my homework done with time to spare, as well as hang out and socialize with my peers.
Not everything was perfect with the brand new program, but it was a strong start in my opinion. The coaches were very flexible and helped me adapt to and address any changes or concerns I had throughout the year to make it as enjoyable as possible. I think back and wonder what I would have ended up doing if I had decided to go elsewhere or take a gap year, and I don’t really have an answer to that question. I couldn’t imagine myself having a better time combining training and school anywhere else, and I don’t think that I could have made the improvements I did if it hadn’t been for the proximity to scenic trails in the High Peaks region, beautifully redone ski jumps, and some amazing coaches and professors to help guide me along the way. The Paul Smith’s College and USA Nordic program is a great success in my opinion, and I am very excited to return to campus next year for what hopefully will be a full season. Go Bobcats!