As the spirit of the Winter Olympics — which open Friday in Sochi, Russia — captures the attention of the world, aspiring ski and snowboard enthusiasts are finding year-round facilities like the Liberty Mountain Snowflex Centre (LMSC) at Liberty University to be an ideal training ground.
LMSC is the first slope of its kind in North America, but fans of the Winter Games can watch three athletes who have trained on the artificial surface in England compete in Sochi this year, proving that the specially engineered material can help produce Olympic-level athletes.
|Britain's James "Woodsy" Woods gets some air time off the quarterpipe during the Aug. 29, 2009 opening day ceremonies at Liberty Mountain Snowflex Centre.|
James “Woodsy” Woods and Katie Summerhayes, slopestyle skiers who trained on Snowflex at Sheffield Ski Village in England, and Jamie Nicholls, a slopestyle snowboarder who grew up on Halifax’s Snowflex Centre slopes, are medal contenders for the British team. All three visited Lynchburg, along with Snowflex inventor Brian Thomas of Briton Engineering, to demonstrate their skills during LMSC’s opening day ceremonies on Aug. 29, 2009.
Liberty ski and snowboard Head Coach Ryan Leeds said the success of these Olympians is due to their ability to train in all seasons.
“It doesn’t surprise me that they’re already sending a couple skiers and snowboarders to the Olympics,” Leeds said. “That’s a perfect example of what happens to people who dedicate themselves to improving in the sport by riding year-round.”
Drew Sherwood, general manager of LMSC, said Liberty hopes to see one or more of the athletes who train there make the U.S. Olympic team.
“We definitely have some young rising stars that in the next five to 10 years could have a good chance at it,” he said.
Liberty senior skier Tim Steltzer and younger brother Jon Steltzer, a junior, have elevated their performance level by training on Liberty’s slopes. Following his Big Air exhibition win at the United States Collegiate Skiing and Snowboard Association (USCSA) National Championships last March in Sun Valley, Idaho, Tim was invited to compete for the United States in the World University Games in Italy.
At last year’s USCSA Nationals, Liberty’s men’s snowboard team finished fourth, and junior snowboarder Eden Jones took fourth individually in women’s slopestyle.
Leeds said his riders have an edge over other teams in the Southeast Conference because Snowflex gives them a more reliable place to train, and to try extreme stunts without as great a risk of injury.
|Jaime Nicholls, another Winter Olympic medal contender from Britain, also appeared on opening day on Liberty's slopes.|
“The surface doesn’t hurt as much when you fall so it allows us to really push the level of progression more than you would probably be allowed to on snow,” Leeds said. “Because Snowflex lets you build in so much repetition, once you get past the mental block of the fear of falling, the fundamentals of every trick you do just fall into place and it usually is a really easy transition (to snow). Everything starts to click because you’ve already developed that muscle memory on Snowflex.”
Ski and snowboard jumpers can practice their aerial stunts with even softer landings on an Aerial Awareness Trampoline, located beside Snowflex’s beginner slope in front of the Barrick-Falwell Lodge.
Sherwood anticipates a rush of Olympic hopefuls testing Liberty’s slopes in the coming weeks, and returning in the ensuing months after area ski resorts have closed for the spring.
“Last Winter Olympics (2010 in Vancouver), we saw a boost of numbers from people watching (ski and snowboard events) on their TVs and wanting to try it themselves,” Sherwood said. “Hopefully that happens again. Our numbers are up from the previous year, so we want to keep with that trend.”
Winter sports enthusiasts can also practice figure skating at the LaHaye Ice Center, which will host an Intercollegiate Competition from Feb. 28 to March 2. LaHaye holds Learn to Skate classes and Summer Camps for both figure skaters and ice hockey players. Others seeking to sharpen their skills for the Summer X Games can bring their boards to the Liberty Mountain Skate Park in nearby Candlers Station Shopping Center.
Spectators can witness members of Liberty’s ski and snowboard team execute their tricks at the LaHaye Rail Jam, Feb. 22 during College For A Weekend, behind the LaHaye Ice Center. Then on April 25-26, LMSC will host the Snowflex Games, formerly called the Dew Games, with amateur and professionals competing for $15,000 in prize money.