BEAR HOLLOW — Planes fly. So do birds. Skiers can and often do . . . for a few brief seconds, anyway, they are weightless, subject only to gravity . . . and then splashdown.
For those few seconds in the air, skiers are free to move about at will. It is this freedom that lures skiers to the sport of aerial freestyle skiing.
And, in particular, to the public freestyle program being offered at the Utah Olympic Park. It is the point where all fliers start.
Even the most novice of skiers can slide down on the plastic surface, take flight and land in the Olympic-size pool with style, albeit, sometimes accidental.
The park began to offer public pool jumping in 2001.
"Since then," said Chris Haslock, executive director of the park's freestyle program, "interest has grown, every year. In fact, we now offer a year-round freestyle program. We jump into the pool in the summer and jump on snow in the winter.
"What's encouraging to us is the program is showing the greatest growth at the lower level, among the younger kids. And yes, we are seeing kids from the public program advance into the group of elite jumpers."
Public jumping will continue through Oct. 9. Then the pool will close and coaches and athletes will begin the transition to snow. It's all part of the natural progression for some to the Olympics.
The program being offered today is not the same as the one offered in the beginning. The public freestyle program has, over the years, been refined and improved.
"In the interest of time, for example, we've gone from a full-day program to one that runs for three hours," said Haslock. "But, in those three hours people can learn a lot and gain a real respect for the sport."
The class begins with a brief orientation followed by a video "giving them an idea of what's to come," he noted.
Students then slip into wetsuits and move to the edge of the pool where they are introduced to a mini-trampoline angled toward the pool. From an elevated platform they can jump onto the little trampoline and be catapulted into the pool.
"This gives them the feeling of forward motion and takeoff," said Haslock. "They can also start to do tricks into the pool, but without skis."
The next step is to the equipment shed where jumpers pick up skis and ski boots, helmets and lifejackets.
"We then put them on the 'dry ramp.' It's the same plastic that's on the ramps, but they simply slide down and stop. It's a chance to get their ski legs under them without going into the pool. Everything is done for a reason. Once they get the feel of sliding on the plastic, then we go to the mini-ramp," he explained.
The first ramp in the progression has a 50-foot in-run with a lip that is one meter up from the level of the water. The first runs start from 35-feet up the ramp. Once the skier is comfortable at this distance, they move to the top.
Liftoff is anywhere from 5 to 8 feet, "which is time enough for them to do tricks," said Haslock. "They start with a stand-up landing, then maybe to a 180-degree spin, then a 360. After that, they may try a forward or backward somersault. We've had skiers go through the whole series of tricks in the first class."
Once the mini-ramp has been mastered, the next ramp in the progressive format is the 3-meter, which offers a little more speed and a little more air.
"If they like this and think this is the sport for them, then they can move to the next level, which is the three-day camp. And, if they want to do more, after this, then they can move up in the five-day camp or 'Fly 5.' Some students have progressed all the way to this level. This is where they qualify for national championships and, possibly, get on the U.S. team and try for the Olympics."
The cost of the three-hour introduction is $65, and includes use of equipment and pool and instruction. Jumping sessions are held Wednesday through Sunday. To register call 435-658-2FLY. Those interested can also get information on the programs at www.flyfreestyle.com.
The Utah Olympic facility is one of only two in the country. The second is in Lake Placid, N.Y., site of the 1980 Olympics. The Utah complex, however, is considered one of the finest in the world and, in fact, teams from all over the world come to Utah to train off the jumps and into the pool.
What the Olympic center has found over the years is that most people want to try splashdown . . . at least once. The lure of big air, which can be as much as a few feet in the beginning, has brought a lot of new aerial student into the sport over the years.
One thing that has made the program so popular is that people saw the freestyle in the Olympics, heard about the park and now want the experience.
And, while it may be too late for starters to make the 2006 Olympics, there's time enough to go from the straight-forward jump off the one-meter jump all the way to the "full-double-full-double-full," or three flips and five twists . . . and an Olympic gold.