Howelson Hill, Ski town USA©, Steamboat Springs, Colorado

Ski Town USA© nurtures Olympic medal winners in Steamboat Springs, Colorado

Story by Stephanie Levin with ski-jump photos by Rory Clow.

Travel is always filled with surprises, especially over beer and conversation on a soft summer night. Per habit in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, also known as Ski Town USA©, no matter the season, the conversation eventually drifts toward skiing and the town’s Olympian competitors. Someone asked if I had taken the Olympic Tour. When I said no, all heads spun around like tops and in unison said, “It is not to be missed!”

Once an avid downhill skier, admittedly I’ve fond memories of hunkering down in front of the television to watch the Winter Olympic Games– holding my breath as the downhill skiers crouched toward the finish line racing against time, or as the slalom skiers zigzagged precariously between poles descending within seconds. I can’t recall which Olympic year I discovered the Norwegians capturing medal after medal in what I coined the ballet jete event as the ski jumpers lifted off from a steep incline, soared airborne, bodies molded into an arc, gathering speed before swooping into a flawless landing. This was the Nordic ski jumping event, perhaps one of the least understood and in my opinion, one of the most beautiful.  If one asks which winter sport carries the most danger,  nine out of ten enthusiasts would say the Nordic ski-jump event.

Nordic Ski Jumper, Steamboat Springs, Colorado
Nordic Ski Jumper – note the intense concentration in the facial expression (Photo: Rory Clow)

“And they would be incorrect,” says Olympian Ben Berend of the Olympic Heritage Tour at Howelsen Nordic Center Lodge in Steamboat Springs. “It’s one of the safest”.  In 2018, Berend competed in the Olympic Nordic competition in South Korea, one of 17 athletes from Steamboat Springs competing that year.

Steamboat Springs, Colorado, Olympic Heritage Tour, Olympian Ben Berend leading the tour in front of his Olympic Flag: from the 2018 PyeongChang, Korea, Winter Olympics
Olympic Heritage Tour, Olympian Ben Berend leading the tour in front of his Olympic Flag: from the 2018 PyeongChang, Korea, Winter Olympics (Photo: Stephanie Levin)

The Olympic sport of Nordic Combined is a combination of cross-country skiing and ski jumping. Both sports feature their own medals. Cross country skiing requires herculean endurance and legs of iron.  Ski jumping requires balance and razor-sharp focus, soaring through the air before landing like an eagle.

Renowned internationally for the Nordic Combination, Steamboat Springs is home to seven ski jump hills and miles of cross-country trails. Since the inception of the Olympics Games, this ski area, located geographically in northern Colorado, west of the Continental Divide, has sent 79 Olympian hopefuls to compete prior to 2022. And has earned its well-deserved title of Ski Town USA©

“Steamboat Springs sends more athletes to the Winter Olympics than any city in the United States,” notes Berend.” To understand this phenomenon, one must thumb through the pages of ski history, long before the word Olympian was uttered.”

Steamboat Springs has an elevation of 6, 762 feet or 2,061 meters. Before the interstate arrived, people moved about on skis, the fastest and easiest way to get around in the long winters.  In 1895, Norwegian gentleman and avid ski jumper, Carl Howelsen, arrived in the US and joined the Ringling Brother’s Circus where he dazzled onlookers with ski jumping ariel tricks. Nordic ski jumping was and is a way of life in Norway, and Howelsen was a champion ski jumper. He made his way to Steamboat Springs in 1914, left the circus, and set about building a ski jump run and the winter sports club. The Nordic ski jump run and Winter Sports Club is the oldest of its kind in the country and continues today. Kids interested in the combined Nordic cross-country skiing and ski jumping start as young as 5 years old, just as Berend did.

The world was introduced to ski jumping when it was one of eight sports to enter the first Winter Olympic Games in Chamonix, France in 1924. Dominated by men, women’s ski jumping didn’t make its Olympian debut until 2014.

Nordic Ski Jumper, Steamboat Springs, Colorado
The in-run, or top of the track, on Howelsen Hill (Photo: Rory Clow)

Viewers tend to focus on the take-off and landing of a ski jumper, yet Nordic ski jumping has a keenly designed anatomy and physics invisible to the novice eye. Ski jumpers rely on both mental acuity and muscle memory from years of practice. The in-run, or top of the track, is where the jumper begins, pushing off and tucking in position, arms fixed to his/her sides, skis aligned.  An uphill wind is favorable for a jumper; a downhill wind makes the run more challenging. The jumper has little control once he or she is barreling down the curved track. Balance is imperative though as the jumper reaches 60-plus miles on the surface of the run-in before the take-off. Skis flatten at what jumpers refer to as the calculation point, the critical point or K-point, which is the average distance a jumper aims for. This, within a tenth of a second, the jumper must coordinate gravity, and 1.7 times bodyweight, to pop from the knees, elevate and become airborne.

Just as each skier or skater is different, so is each jumper, and their flight is highly personalized. Traditionally, the skis are in a classic V-share and the arms open away from the body to maximize the fluidity and adjust for conditions and stay in the air as- long- as possible, approximately 10-15 feet above the contour of the hill on a 90–110-meter jump in preparation for landing.

Landing depends on balance, weight distribution, and wind. The landing is known as a telemark landing-one foot ahead of the other, knees and arms slightly bent as the jumper skis to a stop. The entire jump from start to finish is under 10 seconds.  Jumpers are judged on style, distance, and whether the K-point is reached or exceeded. Points are either added or deducted; a perfect jump would receive a maximum of 20 points from each judge.

Nordic Ski Jumper, Steamboat Springs, Colorado
The aerodynamic form is essential for distance (Photo: Rory Clow)

For all the Olympians nurtured at  Ski Town USA©, Steamboat Springs has never hosted an Olympic Games, though Denver was chosen in 1971 to host the 1976 Winter Olympics with Steamboat Springs the chosen site for Nordic events. According to Berend, many in Denver and some surrounding ski areas did not want the cost of construction or the crowds that accompany an Olympic event. Protests erupted, and the ski jump where the Nordic event was to be held in Steamboat Springs mysteriously burned.

Nordic jumpers practice year-round.  After watching and talking to young jumpers as they practiced on the track, Berendt leads our tour of 12 into Howelsen Lodge and up the stairs to an enormous room covered with Olympic flags draped from the high-beam ceiling and covering the walls, all with a history honoring the many Steamboat Springs Olympians who participated in the Winter Olympics. Walking into the enormous room, Berend mentions that the Europeans dominated Nordic events for decades until 2010 when the Steamboat Springs Nordic team brought home seven Olympic medals.

Olympic Flags, Olympic Heritage Tour, Steamboat Springs, Colorado
Olympic Flags as seen on the Olympic Heritage Tour (Photo: Stephanie Levin)

The flags represent the country where the Olympic Game was held. On each flag is the name and year of the athlete who competed. Some Olympians have two or three flags, representing three different Olympic games. Steamboat Springs native and Nordic combined Olympian, Todd Lodwick, competed in five Olympic Games spanning the years 1994 through 2014, with five flags from five different countries. Nordic Olympian– and another Steamboat Spring native–Johnny Spillane won the first gold in the 2003 Nordic World Championship for the US and three silver medals in his third Olympic Game in 2010. It’s a humbling experience to visualize the history of the Winter Olympics through flags, particularly for those who thrive on winter sports, but it is also a credit to the Ski Town USA© athletes who have spent the better part of their childhood and teen years training to vie for a medal.

We who view the Olympic Games from our living rooms, or if lucky enough attend the games and sit in the stands, seldom think about what it takes for an individual to qualify to compete in the Olympic Games. It’s a life filled with sacrifice and bonding. Each discipline trains for years, and those who train together become a family unit, eating, sleeping, traveling, and competing together. While Olympians compete in some of the most beautiful areas in the world, they have nary a moment to be a tourist.

Nordic Ski Jumper, Steamboat Springs, Colorado
Beautiful scenery and form (Photo: Rory Clow)

“True, there’s a great deal of sacrifice for Olympian hopefuls, but no matter what you compete in, or choose not to compete in, winter sports is a way of life in Steamboat Springs,” notes Berend.


The 2022 Winter Olympic Games begin February 4, in Beijing, China.


Olympic Heritage Tour: Tuesdays: Meet at Howelsen Hill Lodge located at Howelsen Hill Parkway. Cost: Free, but donations appreciated. If you are in Steamboat Springs in February, you’ll arrive just in time to experience Winter Carnival, founded in 1914.  Events include night skiing down the hill, ski jumps, horses parading down Main Street, and a bevy of winter events for all ages.