PLYMOUTH — In February, Plymouth Regional High School will host the state championship ski jump meet. That event will be more than a competition of the state's elite high school ski jumpers, it will also be a celebration of the robust community effort sparked just a few months ago, when it seemed that the tradition of ski jumping in Plymouth was in peril.
The Plymouth Regional High School's original ski jump was built in 1979, and allowed Plymouth to remain one of seven public high schools with a ski jump team in New Hampshire, which is the last state in the country with a sanctioned ski jumping program for high school athletes. This summer, though, an inspection of the 24-meter jump found serious structural problems and the school board, lacking funds to repair or rebuild the jump, voted to tear it down.
That news was worrying to Skip Johnstone, a parent of two members of the ski jumping team. Without a home jump, the team would have had to travel to Proctor Academy, more than an hour away, to train. That inconvenience, he feared, would lead to fewer jumpers and, within a few years, would spell the end of the Plymouth jumping team. He wasn't alone in his alarm.
"The school motto is 'Pride and Tradition,'" said Johnstone. "That about sums it up. People were proud that we had a ski jump on the school campus."
Norm LeBlanc was a construction trades teacher at the high school when he and students built the '79 jump. Although he retired from teaching and coaching in 2006, he was quick to involve himself in the movement to save the jump, and soon found himself heading the group's construction committee.
"It's been an absolutely fantastic ride through this thing," he said.
LeBlanc said having that jump on the school campus, in plain sight of students, inspired many skiers to try the sport. "I thought not having a jump on school property would definitely hurt the program ... We couldn't lose that."
"The most fascinating thing to me was just how generous the community was. I couldn't be more proud of where I've lived, coached and taught for so many years," said LeBlanc.
"In September, the school decided they were going to tear it down with no plans to rebuild it. Norm and I started rallying our community," recalled Johnstone, who acted as the public relations manager, while LeBlanc organized the construction effort. Without an idea of how much the project would cost, the group set goals of raising $50,000 and completing the construction of a new jump by Thanksgiving. The fundraising efforts exceeded its goal within the first month – they've raised a total of about $78,000 to date – and the jump was finished on the day before Thanksgiving, thanks in large part to a great deal of volunteered labor, both from individual members of the community as well as local construction firms.
About 80 "significant contributors" stepped forward to assist, according to LeBlanc. "They all rushed to help. You didn't have to ask anybody twice."
"The community really came together," said Johnstone. "The outpouring really shows what a tremendous community we have." Once the vigor of the community support was apparent, the school board also joined the effort, supplying new lighting for the jumps as well as security fencing around the structure.
In a sense, the school's initial decision to demolish the jump has turned into a positive development for the team. For one thing, the new jump features two levels, an 18-meter and a 28-meter, replacing the single 24-meter jump. The surge of interest in the team showed by the community was also apparent among the student body, as there are now 25 members of the jump team, about double the number of jumpers in previous years.
Sam Untersee, a junior, is one of the new team jump team members. "I've got a lot of friends on the team and it's something I always wanted to try and never got around to it," he said.
Dan LeBlanc, Norm's son and one of the school's skiing coaches, attributed much of the increased interest to a fund raising appearance by Sarah Hendrickson, the first-ever women's World Cup ski jumping champion and a member of the U.S. Ski Team that competed at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Her parents grew up in Plymouth and Hendrickson had trained at the Plymouth High School jump. He sees a connection between Hendrickson's visit and the growing team roster, especially among female athletes.
"There's a lot of adventurous kids out there, there's not many outlets for them that are positive," said Dan LeBlanc.
"I think it's cool. It's something that interests me, it stands out among the winter sports," said freshman Holly Mason.
Aubrey King, also a freshman, said, "It's something new and exciting I've never done before."
For Arne Pietsch, an exchange student from Braunschweig, Germany, ski jumping will be an indelible part of his American experience. "It's not common to ski jump, but it's cool. I want to try it." But, on Thursday, looking at the jump, he admitted, "It's terrifying."
Since there's no snow yet, the new team members have yet to experience their first fight. Team captain Will Johnstone, a senior, said he thinks they will be hooked on the sport by the time they make their first landing.
"It's definitely a rush," he said.
The skier sits at the top of the structure, contemplating the long, steep slope, followed by the jump. The skis sit in tracks; there's no brakes and no turning back, there is only forward, accelerating past cheering teammates, and launching into the air.
"After I went once, I wanted more," said Johnstone.
Other high schools with ski jumping teams are Proctor Academy, Merrimack Valley, Lebanon, Kennett, Hanover and Sunapee. Gilford High School athletic director Dave Pinkham said that school hasn't had a ski jumping team for about three decades. Laconia also once had a ski jumping team. Karen Abraham, LHS librarian, said there are images of ski jumping in school yearbooks up to 1985. Penny Pitou, who in 1960 became the first American to win an Olympic medal in downhill skiing, was a member of the Laconia High School ski jumping team until she graduated in 1956.