|PASSION RECOGNIZED. Vesna, far left, no. 176, had a fascination for ski jumping from a young age but didn’t get a chance to realize it until later in life thanks to happenstance (and an adventurous soul!). Shown here at the Andover Outing Club with other members of the 2010 Holderness ski jumping team.
North Conway, NH & Cambridge, MA
I was a substitute math teacher for 2 months at Holderness Jan-Feb 2010 and, by the dint of circumstances, I had all but hi-jacked the Holderness Ski Jumping team from its coach Doug Kendall. When we had first met during a school lunch, I was astonished to learn that this sweet and bookish Latin teacher was also a ski jumping coach! He was delighted with my story of a bed-ridden girl in then-Yugoslavia living for the ski jumping coverage on TV all her childhood. And thus we struck a friendship that was to bring to pass the events that I describe here.
First time I saw a ski-jumper on TV at the age of 7 or 8, I was mesmerized and never got over it. Soon I had to watch every competition shown on TV. As a Serbian in Yugoslavia AND a girl, there was no chance I’d ever even see a ski jumping hill, let alone fly from one. Slovenians had the ski culture, in Serbia skiing was a rare recreation sport. I had watched it simply for the pure esthetic pleasure and the glimpse of freedom of flying. I had a bad case of child asthma with frequent bouts of bronchitis, and my parents kept me in bed, away from ‘dangers’ of sports and recreation. But when I had hard time breathing and the panic started to set in, it was thinking of flying off the ski jump that got me to calm down. When I felt better, I bullied my younger sister into spotting me as I jumped off from the edge of my bed in perfect form. I studied keenly how the real jumpers did it and had it dialed in to perfection. But she never took it as serious as I and often botched my perfect take off. We invariably collapsed in a heap on the floor and my parents rushed in with admonishments.
My family eventually bought into the beauty of it, and the highlight of our family life was waking up late on New Years Day, piling up in front of the TV still in our PJs, first for the New Year’s Concert In Vienna, and following right up, the crown of the day—The Four Hills Tournament!! As we became professional ski-jumping spectators, we all adopted our favorites. I loved watching Matti Nykänen fly, although I couldn’t fit his his baby-face to his drinking. My dad and my sister changed camps for each event and my mom adored the blond, smiling Dieter Thoma. We all, of course, rooted for our boys, the Slovenians, especially Primoz Ulaga and we were shattered when he missed the gold on the ski-flying championship in Oberstdorf in 1988 by few points to a Norwegian!
I had gone a long way since that little sick-bed spectator….The love for flying got me into parachuting at an early age of 16 (unheard of back home at the time) and studying aerospace engineering at college. I spent my 20’s and 30’s running marathons, climbing high-altitude mountains, cycling across Europe and ice climbing some hard New England routes, skiing mostly as a means of approach to climbs, rather than as a sport on itself. I came to US for grad school in applied physics in ’95, took an academic career, eventually getting fed up with it. I entered a proper mid-life crisis by quitting my faculty position at a big university, learning how to drive, piling up all my climbing, cycling and golf gear into my station wagon, and driving off into the sunset in the direction of Mount Washington Valley. The plan was to live simply while enjoying the outdoors and trying various professions, from mountain guiding to teaching high school math to consulting, and everything in between.
That’s how I landed in Holderness in January 2010 as a substitute math teacher and that’s where my spectator story turns into a ski-jumper story. I couldn’t believe it when Doug Kendal, once I calmed down about the idea of an Latin teacher and ski jumping coach in one, asked simply “You wanna try?” I was instantly shoved back to Belgrade, to my childhood frame-of-mind, amazed at the idea. “No way!” And Doug said flatly “If you can hold your skis parallel down the hill for a few seconds, you can do it. I jumped too!” Well! If a Latin teacher can ski jump, a math teacher can too!!
Doug outfitted me with some ancient boots and skis and a few technical tips. When the big day arrived I had, mercifully, only one class in the morning–the kids learned nothing that day! We drove to Proctor Academy with all of the Holderness team—total of 1 kid at the time—and were welcome by ubiquitous, tireless Tim Norris. On that first day Doug had me ride the 10K landing hill first, which was no biggie, and then jump, which was no biggie either. I got bolder and bolder with each jump and was actually able to register with my mind the rush of air, the tightness of my quads on the in-run, and the glorious split second in the air!! All my childhood practice was finally paying back!
The evening after my first ski jump, back at Holderness, the poor kids at my table couldn’t eat their dinner in peace from my excited recounting of that glorious first flight! “What?! You can go ski jumping any time you want, and you haven’t tried it yet???” Talk about pressure… In my remaining time there, each week we were joined by more and more Holderness kids, and even a few teachers, who were infected by my euphoria. And soon we were joined by the US Olympian, and special adviser to the Holderness team, Walter Malmquist, who fed my enthusiasm into a danger zone! I would have been happy to just ‘fly’ off the 10K till the rest of my days, but Walter would hear none of it. “You are ready for the 18K! It’s just a bigger 10K.”
I spent the night before my first 18K flight in turmoil. This is way more than a mid-life crisis, my mind was screaming. That’s why they start ’em early, it’s easy for those kids to have no fear, their prefrontal cortex is not developed yet! And the math teacher who needed to keep some authority for classroom use was thinking: I’ll embarrass myself in front of my students! And the coughing and wheezing kid was refusing to stay in the past. Walter and Doug had a good idea of my state of mind on the D-Day, whisking me away from the 10K were I tried to look inconspicuous. As I carried my skis to the top of the 18K very very slowly, a succession of flying squirrels (8-10 yr olds) whizzed by. Seeing that there was no backing off now, I got to the start position numb with fear. I clicked my skis on in slow motion, adjusted my gloves and grabbed the gate. Walter said “When you take off, make a big grunt, it helps release the energy as you explode!” Doug was getting the camera ready. The flying squirrels were cheering. The whole Andover was looking. I rocked back and forth. I looked down the in-run—it fell off at the horizon. I rocked and rocked… The flying squirrels were screaming “You can do it Vesna!!!!” I rocked some more. It went on and on for eons. I started noticing things. I noticed I was making little whimpering noises. I noticed I was tired of not knowing if I was going or staying. At last, I got tired of being scared and just let go.
Swoooooooshshshshshsh! That was me, skis straight on the in-run, mind shocked at the noise and the speed of it, thighs burning, and before I knew it—the lip! All my expertise in physics was erased by that one moment of pure mortification. But the instinct kicked in beautifully! I exploded up, just as I did as a kid, and I let out the grunt à la Malmquist (though a video proves it was a squeak after a wimpy hop) and I was air-born! “I am flying!!!” was the first thought, quickly replaced by “This is insane!!!” which quickly deteriorated my posture into that of a person looking left and right for a break handle. The land arrived before I had the chance to sort it out. I touched down surprisingly gently, but slid off to my hip, just to be on the safe side. Wee-ha! Survived my first Olympic flight! And all the fear, the mortification—instantly forgotten!! Just this immeasurable elation… Even if for a split second, the feeling of air under my feet was glorious! I was ecstatic, simply couldn’t believe it, talked about nothing else for weeks.
My style improved nicely thanks to Walter and Doug who were super coaches. They sure made me feel like an Olympian. Walter never gave up trying to persuade me to try the 30K hill, but one look down from the top of the in-run told me it is better left for my next reincarnation. But I loved flying off the 18K and even took part in a local meet in Andover, finished mid-crowd of about dozen 18K competitors (aged 8-15 and me, age 40) and won a special mention award (a paper plate plaque) for the most enthusiastic new master. That paper plate is more precious to me than all my marathon medals together! I clocked in a total of 40-50 jumps with Holderness in my short but sweet ski jumping career.
Back in Belgrade, friends were excited, did some checking, and it turned out I was the first Serbian ever, male or female, to have ski jumped in the history of our nation! That sure is something, but what made it such a grand experience for me was the community and spirit I was a part of in that brief time. I loved hanging out with everybody. Kids, parents, coaches—everybody cheering…. Parents, staff and coaches just tireless in keeping the hills in good shape. I know you all would love to see this sport raised to the level of financial support some other sports have in US, but I think this kind of camaraderie and home-made atmosphere is only possible in a non-mainstream sport. I would much rather have hundreds of kids experience this atmosphere all through their childhood, than things getting more competitive and more selective, for that one single kid to make it to the Olympic podium!!
After Holderness, I had many adventures including a solo ice climbing expedition in Norwegian Arctic in 2013 and even lived for a while in a tiny fjord even further north. I now spend my time between Cambridge, MA where I do a bit of teaching and consulting, and my beloved Mt Washington Valley, where I roam the mountains and climb cliffs in all weather. And every now and then I run into someone who was a part of this ski-jumping culture in Northern New England. I am so glad I was a part of it too!
Vesna’s story is longer than most which she attributes to her Serbian roots. She says there is no term for “elevator pitch” in the Serbian language! Vesna is also a born adventurer… to see information and video trailer of her 2013 expedition to Arctic Norway click here