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Nansen Ski Jump re-awakens after 32 years as women take historic 'flight'

Sunday News Correspondent

March 05. 2017 2:59AM
Team USA ski jumper Sarah Hendrickson on Saturday soars off the "Sleeping Giant," a nickname for the Nansen Ski Jump jump in Milan, which hasn't seen flight in 32 years. (Red Bull Content Pool/Dave Trumpore)

MILAN -- Inactive for the past 32 years, the historic Nansen Ski Jump came alive Saturday when two international jumpers launched from the 80-year-old wooden tower.

Sarah Hendrikson, 22, and Anna Hoffmann, 16, capped a collaboration between Red Bull and the state of New Hampshire to rehabilitate the jump, locally known as the "Sleeping Giant."

Red Bull, a sponsor of extreme sports around the Globe, approached the state in 2015 about doing an event that paralleled the restoration and temporary reuse of the Nansen Ski Jump - which opened in 1937 and held the first U.S. Olympic jumping trials in 1938 as well as four national championships. The event also announces loudly Olympian Hendrickson's return to competition this season and her New Hampshire roots.

Both of her parents, Bill and Nancy, were star alpine and cross-country skiers in the early 1980s at Plymouth Regional High School, where, as Sarah tells it, they were sweethearts.

Her father was also a ski jumper and Hendrickson's grandmother, Arlene Bownes, still lives in Plymouth. As children, Sarah and her older brother, Nick, would fly off the 24-meter jump that their father helped build in 1979.

Sarah of Park City, Utah, helped write the opening entries of the nascent sport's history for women's ski jumping by winning both the inaugural World Cup competition and then that first overall World Cup championship.

Hendrickson competed in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, but a subsequent series of knee injuries and five operations have taken a toll on her podium appearances.

She began a comeback this season and sits in 14th place in the World Cup rankings. Her comeback is being recorded for a feature-length documentary that will be released toward the end of the year by Red Bull.

A highlight of that documentary is Hendrickson sailing off the refurbished Nansen Ski Jump in Saturday's single digit temperatures - something which was made possible by hard work and good luck.

Her jump was made just 15 minutes before the wind began to pick up and would have forced her to cancel the jump. Originally set for December - and rescheduled twice - the event has struggled against unseasonably warm weather and high winds.

Had Saturday been scrubbed, too, Hendrickson would have foregone the jump entirely to return to World Cup competition in Europe, said Alan Alborn, head coach of Women's Ski Jumping USA.

More than 40 loads of snow from nearby Milan and Berlin had to be trucked in last week to pad the jump and landing area after the February thaw, Alborn said. Organizers were lent a crane to pack the landing hill's new snow.

The effort to revitalize the "Sleeping Giant" began in 2015 after Red Bull executives read about the state's effort to rehabilitate the Nansen Ski Jump.

So far,the energy-drink maker has invested about $75,000 and the state will ultimately spend about $150,000 to transform the 8.1 acre ski jump that overlooks Route 16 and the Androscoggin River into a historical site, said Ben Wilson, director of New Hampshire's Bureau of Historic Sites.

Wilson, along with the Nansen Ski Club and the Friends of the Nansen Ski Jump, hope that one day the Giant will be designated by the U.S. Department of the Interior as a National Historic Landmark.

The state is working with Red Bull on the possibility of it bringing an event to the Nansen Ski Jump annually for 5 years, he said, noting that such events would bolster the area economy.

Before Hendrikson's leap, Anna Hoffmann, a teenager from Madison, Wisc., and a member of the Women's Ski Jumping USA junior team, was first off the jump with an approximately 55-meter long flight.

Used to going off jumps that are 90 meters to 120 meters long, Hendrickson said going off the 70-meter Nansen Ski Jump "felt a little funky."

The landing area was "pretty steep," she said, and the transition was "super long," but overall, the jump worked well.

"It was amazing that it all came together and up to a couple days ago, we didn't know it would," said Hendrickson, whose personal best jump is 148 meters.

While recognizing that women's ski jumping still has a way to go, Hendrickson said the sport is becoming increasingly popular with a younger generation of athletes, Hoffmann among them.

By virtue of jumping before Hendrickson yesterday, Hoffmann became just one of fewer than five females who have ever gone off the Nansen Ski Jump, said Walter Nadeau, the vice president of the Berlin and Coos County Historical Society.

Nadeau pointed out that the current Nansen Ski Jump, which at the time of its construction, was one of the tallest freestanding steel structures anywhere, was the fifth of five ski jumps built in Berlin and nearby Milan by the Nansen Ski Club, which, at 145 years young, is the oldest continually-operating ski club in the U.S.

Once featured on ABC's "Wide World of Sports," the Nansen Ski Jump eventually closed due to the loss of seasoned volunteers, said Nadeau, combined with the loss of competitors who went to larger, more modern jumps.

Hoffmann said she was honored to join with Hendrickson in waking the ski jump.

"It was just so amazing, an awesome experience," said Hoffmann, who explained that the goal of her first jump was simply to land safely and to then relay the conditions to Hendrickson.

"I was pretty comfortable," Hoffmann said, adding that both she and Hendrickson were heartened by the support they received yesterday from spectators who gathered on Route 16, not far from the Berlin city line, to see them jump.

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