- Pam LeBlanc American-Statesman Staff
Hurtling down a lake with skis on your feet, then launching yourself over a 5-foot wedge-shaped ramp feels sort of like getting shot out of a cannon.
Not that I’d know about the cannon part, although this is my Year of Adventure and I’m open to all sorts of challenges. (No, please do not alert the circus.)
Longtime ski jumper Rhett Stone, who retired from the sport after having too many hips replaced, has invited me to give ski jumping a shot. I’ve driven down to Aquaplex, a manufactured water ski lake and housing subdivision near Creedmoor. I’ve just spotted a huge, pie-shaped obstacle bobbing in the lake, and I feel a little sweaty.
“Someone once said, ‘It looks like a lumberyard when you’re coming down the lake, and when you get up to the top of the ramp it looks like a minnow bucket below you,’” Stone says, then introduces me to Jimmy Siemers, a 35-year-old ski jumping instructor and former world champion.
Siemers grew up in Round Rock. His parents water skied with him in their arms when he was a baby. He started skiing on his own when he was 4, and he made his first ski jump when he was 8 and his dad signed him up to do it at a tournament.
“That first jump I went upside down,” Siemers tells me. “It was the first time I ever got the wind knocked out of me, so I thought I was dying. But I made my second one. I learned from my mistakes.”
He improved. Ski jumping is judged on one thing: distance. You have to remain upright on skis when you land, but all that matters is how far you travel. When Siemers set the world record in 2003, he soared 236 feet. Today the record stands at 254 feet.
“You’ll probably go 25 feet,” he tells me. “If I threw a sack of potatoes over the ramp, it would probably go just as far.”
Siemers should know what he’s talking about. After more than 20 years of training and competing, sometimes making more than a dozen jumps a day, he estimates that he’s made some 50,000 jumps so far in his lifetime. He’s landed most of them, too.
Back in his competition days (he mainly coaches now), Siemers would reach speeds of more than 70 mph as he slung himself over a jump like the one I’m eyeballing, arcing through the sky on a trajectory that took him higher than the roof of a two-story house. He’s also paid the price. Seimer’s litany of injuries is long: Knocked unconscious twice, stitches in his face six times before he was 10 years old, broken neck, busted ribs, blown knees, hernias. At one point, he had the same doctor as Evel Knievel.
“When I crash, it’s like being in a car crash,” he says. “When I’m filling out medical forms, I just say, ‘Ask me.’”
But he loves the pure adrenaline of jumping. Once, he wore a heart rate monitor, which measured his heart rate at 135 beats per minute an hour before his jump, just anticipating it. It maxed out at 189 beats per minute.
“The pressure you put on your body is pretty extreme,” he says. “It’s kind of like maxing out on squats in weight lifting, then all the sudden you hit the ramp, and it’s flight.”
Twice, the G-forces have caused him to black out just coming into the ramp, which is waxed and watered to make it slick. He almost always sees stars.
“But don’t worry,” he adds thoughtfully. “You’re not going to feel any of this.”
With that, he hops in the water, pops up on a pair of skis (unlike slalom skiing, which is done on one ski, jumpers use two skis) and takes aim at that 5-foot wedge. He guts the thing, flashes a peace sign, and drops easily back onto the water, remaining upright. After a few more demo runs, he swims back to the boat and hands me his crash helmet.
I’m a water skier. I skied a few times as a kid, then learned to run a slalom course, a series of precisely spaced buoys that a skier weaves through for time, when I was 40. My husband and I own an old boat now, which we trailer to Lake Austin to ski before work once a week. I love the way it feels to slice across smooth water as the sun rises.
“You’re right to be scared, but it’s very hard to get hurt doing what you’re doing,” Siemers says. “You’re going to do what we call the plop. You’re just sliding over the ramp and, hopefully, landing.”
All I need to do is follow his recipe for success: knees, trees and freeze. I’ll bend my knees, look up at the trees and not move. That, and stay on an even keel. “As you’re coming in to the ramp, you want to be completely balanced on both feet. A lot of mistakes come from being unbalanced.”
My jump, he says, will be the equivalent to jumping off a picnic table. I’ll experience “pretty much nothing, nothing, nothing, the ramp, a little pressure, then that feeling of falling out of the sky.”
I have a few minutes to mull that as I wait for the rope to feed out and the boat to start pulling me down the lake. In that time, he shouts out a few final words of advice: “The ramp is more slippery than you think.”
Two minutes later, I steer myself into the wedge at 20 miles per hour, clatter like a newborn fawn on a frozen pond, skid slightly off-center and wipe out in spectacular fashion, cartwheeling into the water. When I’m sure everything is still working, I hoist myself into the boat to reassess, and get ready to try again.
The second run goes better. I hold onto my balance longer, and fly through the air more or less squarely. I stay upright until I hit the water and the skis are torn from my feet. My left hamstring stretches like an old rubber band.
That’s it. I’m done for the day.
But I’ve felt the thrill of zooming up the ramp, experienced a nanosecond or two of flight and met the water face first. Other than a slightly strained muscle, I’ve managed to stay injury-free. That’s just fine. I can come back another day and finish what I’ve started.