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Steamboat Springs has produced more winter Olympians than any other town in North America. Its remarkable Olympic heritage, which began in 1932 when local John Steele placed 15th in Nordic jumping, extends to this year’s games in PyeongChang, South Korea, where 15 athletes with ties to Steamboat will be competing. This contingent, which is larger than many sent by entire nations, includes women’s halfpipe snowboarder Arielle Gold and Nordic combined skiers Bryan and Taylor Fletcher.
One of many reasons for Steamboat’s unparalleled success is Howelsen Hill. The historic ski area in downtown Steamboat has long been a training ground for winter athletes. With just two lifts and two magic carpets, 17 alpine and 9 Nordic trails, and a 440-foot drop, its statistics don’t sound particularly impressive compared to nearby Steamboat Resort and Colorado’s other mega-mountains. But Howelsen Hill has a tradition unlike any other. Colorado’s oldest, continuously operated ski area hosts the continent’s largest natural ski jumping complex and has been the proving grounds for dozens of Olympic athletes, including Johnny Spillane, the first American to medal in Nordic combined; Shannon Dunn, the first American woman to medal in snowboarding; and Nelson Carmichael, the first American to earn a men’s freestyle moguls medal.
Howelsen Hill was founded by and named for famed Norwegian ski jumper Carl Howelsen. The “Flying Norseman” moved to Steamboat Springs in 1913, following a seven-year stint with the Barnum & Bailey Circus, during which he wowed the crowds by “ski-sailing” down a 100-foot, Vaseline-greased slide, and soaring over the backs of two circus elephants. Naturally, Howelsen built a ski jump shortly after arriving in Yampa Valley. When he introduced this virtually unheard-of sport to his adopted hometown, it forever changed the community—and Olympic history.
In 1915, Howelsen built an even larger jump on what’s now called Howelsen Hill, where on his first test run he jumped 127 feet. That’s seven more than Orville Wright’s first airplane flight, folks. Over a century later, the hill remains the home base for the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club, a youth training group the Norseman organized. The oldest such group west of the Mississippi, the club has trained 89 winter Olympians and hundreds of other athletes. Its facilities still serve as the practice grounds for Nordic skiing and jumping, as well as alpine racing, snowboarding, and other adrenaline-packed disciplines. The hill is the home of pioneering camps that produced many of the nation’s first freestyle competitors and the spot where World Champion and six-time Olympian Todd Lodwick, America’s most successful Nordic combined skier, donned his first pair of skis; and Clint Jones, America’s youngest ski champion, first soared off a jump.
This month be sure to tune in as Steamboat Springs’ athletes, which comprise nearly half of Colorado’s impressive Olympic delegation, take on their competitors in South Korea—thanks in large part to Carl Howelsen, and his remarkable legacy.
Visit: The Howelsen Hill Ski Area is located at 845 Howelsen Pkwy, Steamboat Springs; 970-879-8499. Weather permitting, it’s open Tuesdays through Sundays from late November through early March. Steamboat’s Tread of Pioneers Museum is also offering free Olympic Heritage walking tours on Wednesdays from 4 to 5:30 p.m. throughout the month of February.