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Ray Grass: Athletes' ski boots are hard to fill

The one way to gain respect for an athlete is to put yourself in his or her shoes . . . or in this case, ski boots.

The invitation came to me back in summer of 1999 to join the ranks of aerial freestylers flying into the splash pool at the Utah Olympic Park, then the Utah Winter Park.

It was, after all, at that point, three years to the Olympics, which was certainly time enough to master a quadruple twisting, forward double spinning flip that I could present before the group of Olympic judges . . . and pure gold.

After all, what can be so hard about skiing down a ramp that would be a green or easy slope at any ski resort, doing a couple of flips in the air and landing in an Olympic-size swimming pool of pre-heated water, and then doing the same thing on snow.

The first station back then was a springy trampoline and a bungee harness to keep you upright and balanced. Easy. After a couple of bounces came the first scheduled trick — a backward somersault . . . head back, point the toes and let momentum do the rest. What was supposed to be a single backward flip turned into a double plus a little extra.

But, on the first try what can you expect?

After several more attempts, the single was mastered. From there it was off to the dressing room where wetsuits, helmets, skis and boots and the all-important lifejacket were fitted.

From there the trail led to the ramp . . . and the first reality check.

Looking down the ramp, with no quick exit either right or left, only off the end and into the water, is a lot different than the view from across the pool.

Double black-diamond runs on snow seemed, to me, a little less intimidating. On steep runs you can always stop, survey the best exit and take it. Off a jump ramp there is no stopping, not with any safety, anyway. Once you commit, it's all air and water after that.

Said the coach: "Just keep the hands up, the knees bent and the eyes forward and you'll do just fine." And I was. I landed skis first, hands up and eyes forward. But, it wasn't pretty. In fact, it was borderline ugly — skis were apart, hand and arms were flapping about and the body collapsed into an "S" shape.

The next step was a 180-degree helicopter. It was more like a 130-degree crash landing. The 360 was no better. A little more spin, but a bad landing.

The backward flip, as practiced on the trampoline, was certain to be my best.

First came the sound of the skis on the plastic runway, then a swish as I went airborne . . . toes pointed, arms up and eyes looking at the sky.

But wait. But wait a minute, wasn't there supposed to be water somewhere in the rotation?

But alas, the flip was a flop. What came so easily on the trampoline suddenly became a lot more difficult when more body control became necessary.

It took only a few more jumps to get the backward flip into some semblance of "a good trick." Interestingly enough, the forward flip took longer to get to a "reasonable" level.

The whole experience was fun and challenging. More than anything, though, it made me all the more impressed by those elite aerialist who are able to do the "full-double-full-double-full," which in lay terms is three flips with five twists and land it — on snow, at that.