Winter Notes: These Olympic sports may be obscure, but you can try them right here in NHBY MEGHAN McCARTHY McPHAUL February 09. 2018 6:40AM
Since the inception of the Olympic Winter Games in 1924, New Hampshire athletes have represented Team USA on the frozen global stage. Still, there are some sports that linger at the edge of the limelight — except for the every-four-years Olympic frenzy, when athletes from Mikaela Shiffrin to John Shuster step into the spotlight.
If you don’t know who Mikaela Shiffrin is, I’m guessing you don’t read the sports pages. (She’s one of our best skiers.) If you’ve never heard of John Shuster, I’ll cut you some slack. I hadn’t heard of him, either, until I started looking into some of the Olympics’ more obscure sports, including four with footholds in New Hampshire: curling, ski jumping, biathlon and speed skating.
Here’s a primer on those sports, including some insight from the experts, where you might check them out in New Hampshire, and whom to watch during the Olympics.
“There’s a huge upswing in curling in the Olympic years,” said Paul Valle, president of the Mount Washington Valley Curling Club. “In 2014, we had upward of 120 people come out and try the sport.”
The MWVCC, one of several curling clubs in New Hampshire, has regular ice time at North Conway’s Ham Arena, including a Wednesday night league and Saturday Casual Curling for curlers from brand new to seasoned. (More info at www.mwvcurlingclub.org.)
Invented in the 1500s by the Scots, this game of sliding stones and sweeping ice has gradually gained a following in the U.S. — and considerable TV air time during the Olympics.
Valle said it’s a sport for all ages and athletic abilities. “There’s a tremendous amount of strategy involved. It’s good exercise, and it’s a very social sport,” he said. “There’s a lot of fun. There’s a lot of laughing.”
To celebrate the Olympics, the MWVCC offers the Olympic Curling Experience Feb. 17 and 24, with learn-to-curl instruction, an overview of the history and rules of curling, and the option to join the WMVCC Mini Olympic League in March.
Valle said the Canadians are always favorites for Olympic gold, but the U.S. men’s team may land on the podium behind “skip” (team captain) John Shuster of Wisconsin, who won a bronze medal in 2006 and will be competing in his fourth Olympics in Pyeongchang.
Back in the 1930s, when skiing was becoming popular in New England, ski jumping was just part of the mix, along with downhill and cross-country. Competitions generally included all three events. While the disciplines have long been separated, ski jumping remains a part of the landscape in New Hampshire, which is the only state in the union to have sanctioned high school jumping competitions.
While those sleekly clad skiers taking off from the big Olympic jump seem to soar dangerously high, Eric Smith, a jumping coach at the Lebanon Outing Club, said looks can be deceiving.
“The end of a ski jump doesn’t point up, but actually points down,” he said, so jumpers are not pushed high into the air. “The reality is that ski jumping is very safe, and the jumper most of the time is not more than 10 feet off the ground.”
The Lebanon Outing Club offers lessons to local children throughout the winter at Storrs Hill, with its season-ending Mudd Meet scheduled for March 4. The Gunstock Nordic Association and Andover Outing Club also offer ski jumping programs, and high school teams include Kennett, Sunapee, Hanover, Merrimack Valley, Concord and Plymouth high schools.
Smith said one U.S. jumper to watch is 23-year-old Sarah Hendrickson, who caused a Granite State buzz last year when she was the first jumper to leap from Berlin’s Big Nansen Ski Jump since 1985 as part of a documentary being made by her sponsor, Red Bull. Hendrickson, from Utah, will be competing in her second Olympics and had the honor of being the first woman to make an Olympic jump in 2014, the year women’s ski jumping became an Olympic sport.
Imagine sprinting as hard as you can, then dropping to the ground and trying to shoot a rifle to hit a series of golf ball-sized targets some 160 feet away. That’s a bit what it must be like to compete in biathlon, which combines the endurance of cross-country skiing with precise marksmanship.
While it’s a common misconception that biathletes are able to slow their heart rate in the brief pause between skiing and shooting, that’s not the case, said Wayne Peterson, founder of the non-profit Jackson Biathlon (www.jacksonbiathlon.org).
“They train to shoot between breaths, with an elevated heart rate,” he said. “They actually shoot as they hold the end of an exhalation.”
Located at the Jackson Ski Touring Foundation, Jackson Biathlon offers lessons year-round to those looking to learn the sport, as well as advanced training options. They also have two race series: the Sunday Series held every other Sunday, and the Meisters Series held each Wednesday through March. Both series include a novice category for those just getting into the sport.
“You don’t need to be a great skier or have any prior firearms experience” to get started, Peterson said. “The Level 1 lesson is a great way to learn more about the sport. Everything happens really fast during a high-level race, and if people know what to watch for, it is much more exciting.”
Peterson pointed to Lowell Bailey of Lake Placid, N.Y., and Susan Dunklee of Barton, Vt., as the top U.S. contenders to watch during the Olympics. He’ll also be keeping an eye on New Hampshire’s Sean Doherty of Center Conway, who will be competing in his second Olympics.
Dan Weinstein started his skating career as a hockey player, but he was hooked on speed skating from his first lap around the ice. Passion led to success, and Weinstein competed in short-track speed skating in the 1998 and 2002 Winter Olympics. Now he’s started the Upper Valley Speed Skating Club to share the sport with others.
“Interest in speed skating is absolutely on a four-year cycle,” Weinstein said. “As a club you need to capitalize on the attention from the Olympics and then hold on to members.”
Weinstein’s club has ice time at the Wendall A. Barwood Arena just across the river in Vermont at various times during the week, and there will often be skaters ranging in age from 3 (his son) to folks in their 60s. (For info, email Weinstein at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Weinstein and three other coaches — his wife, Amelia Ihlo, and Dartmouth College students and siblings Sara and Matthew Chen — adjust training to fit individual skaters. He encourages anyone interested to give the sport a try.
“Speed skating is accessible, especially in New Hampshire,” he said, noting skaters often start out on hockey skates rather than specialized speed skating blades. “The social aspect, the community is really great.”
Weinstein said the best medal hope for U.S. speed skaters will likely be the men’s relay team, but on the women’s side, he’s also keeping an eye on 18-year-old Maame Biney of Virginia, a short-track sprinter who’s been making big strides in competition.
The Olympics run through March 25. For a full schedule of events and how to watch them, visit www.nbcolympics.com/full-schedule.
Winter Notes is published on Fridays during ski season. Contact Meghan McCarthy McPhaul at email@example.com.