By Phil Johnson
I think of world class mogul skiers this way: They are the only athletes where my knees hurt just watching them perform.
Think I’m kidding? Well, you can see for yourself next week when the World Cup Freestyle returns to Lake Placid for a moguls competition Jan. 13 at Whiteface. The companion Aerials event is the next day at the Olympic Jumping Complex.
One interested spectator will be Niskayuna resident Jay Simson. Only this time for the competition, he’ll just be one of the crowd. In October, the 62-year-old Albany-based association executive ended five decades of involvement in freestyle skiing, dating back to the 1970s when he was a young competitor on the Hunter Mountain ski team.
Over the years, Simson went from a volunteer official at local events, to judging his first national championships at Winter Park Colorado in 1984, to judging World Championships in 1993 and 1997, to the pinnacle of the sport, chief judge at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano Japan.
These were the glory days of freestyle skiing in the U.S. The classic moguls event caught the public eye in 1992, when New Jersey native, via Killington, Donna Weinbrecht dazzled television audiences for the Albertville Olympics as she bounced down the quarter-mile long bumps course to win the gold medal. Her knees were in constant motion, but her head and shoulders remained still. The then-26-year-old was a star of the Games.
It got even better in 1998. With Simson in change of the judging, flashy Californian Jonny Moseley won the moguls event. In the aerials, Eric Bourgoust claimed the men’s gold, and Union College graduate (and descendant of Eliphilet Nott) Nikki Stone won the first gold medal for women in the aerials event.
Freestyle skiing has deep roots in the Capital Region. In the 1960’s, one of the original “hot doggers,” Latham native Tommy Leroy, was among the first to do aerial flips, and in the 1970s the Post twins, Ellen and Marion from Averill Park, were international champions in the ballet — later named acro — discipline. Bruce Bolesky, from Melrose, and John Witt, from Saratoga Springs, were world-class competitors in the 1980s.
In 2000, Simson was named U.S. Representative for Freestyle to the International Ski Federation (FIS), which sets the rules, and stands for all skiing competitions, including the Olympics. He served in that position until last October when he retired after more than 40 years in the sport.
He’s seen a lot of changes over that time.
“When I began, training was more impromptu, more opportunity than design,” Simson said. “Today, the best athletes train year round at places like Lake Placid, where they have equipment and coaching and special facilities like trampolines and a jump pool for aerial exercises.
“The athleticism in freestyle has improved greatly over the years. The skills of the competitors keep pushing what the rules allow the athletes to perform.”
The quality of judging has improved greatly over those years, too. Simson can take a share of the credit for that, too. He has organized and conducted coaching clinics in the U.S. and throughout the world since the 1980s. When a jump lasts three seconds and there is less than 30 seconds to come up a decision, without the aid of video, judges must be on top of their game for a competition.
There are about 10-15 judges in the US qualified to work at the World Cup level. One of those is Simson’s wife Sarah, who he first met at a judging clinic in 1992. Recently she was a member of the judging panel at a World Cup event in Colorado.
At Lake Placid next Friday, the qualification heat of the moguls competition begins 9:30 a.m., with the finals that afternoon. The aerials are the next day starting at 1:30 p.m., with the finals under the lights that evening.
There were plans for the ski train from Saratoga Springs to North Creek to resume this winter. But it won’t happen this season. A company spokesman indicates “maybe next year.” . . .
The secret of great ski area marketing was revealed last week: moderate temperatures and plenty of snow on the hill. Gore had its biggest single day in some time last Friday while Jim Blaise reflected the results of other areas in our region when he reported his best Christmas week in 40 years at Royal Mountain. . . .
Kudos to The Mirror Lake Inn in Lake Placid. The stately facility overlooking the lake in town was recently named The Best Ski Hotel in the Northeast by USA Today.
Phil Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.