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Northern Minn. teen hopes to take ski jumping to the Olympics

COLERAINE, Minn. (AP) -- Kyle Rodgers takes a few moments to catch his breath after climbing 180 stairs to the summit of his iron and wood mountain.

He straps on his fiberglass airplanes, takes a seat on the wooden tarmac and waits for the take off signal from his instructor at the base of the jump.

"Yup," Rodgers says loudly to Jon Denney, his instructor.

Denney thoroughly checks the jump and landing pad for obstructions.

He returns the audible signal to Rodgers, motioning with his arm as though dropping a checkered flag at the races.

Rodgers takes a deep breath, pauses for a second, pushes off and tucks in tight and low; he picks up speed.

As he gets closer to 50 mph, the whooshing sound revs up like a spinning top picking up speed.

The clusters of pine needles on the outsides of the carved-out tracks get closer together, while appearing to pick up speed.

Whoosh! Silence, like a bird in flight. For 150 feet, Rodgers flies like a bird.

After the thud from his body weight and the sharp cracking sound from the front of his skis contacting the outrun, he gracefully glides to a stop by the chalet.

Rodgers rides the lift, stops for some encouragement from his mentor and climbs the jump to do it again.

It's a good way to spend this day, the day before his 15th birthday.

"It feels nice," Rodgers says, still breathing heavily. "It feels like you're flying like a bird. It's amazing actually."

He says there is fear the first time, but you just have to get over it and do it again.

Rodgers explained his experience with tumbling, or "sliding" as he called it, down the jump during a summer competition.

A piece a wax stopped one of his skis from moving, causing him to fall.

He also illustrated the mars on his black helmet and suit from a fall during a competition in Chicago.

He fell, landed in the dirt, slid to the bottom, got up and went directly to a bigger jump -- the perfect mentality and drive for someone who wants to go all the way.

"This is a lot of fun," Rodgers said, brown eyes twinkling, "My goal is to make it to the Olympics."

Kyle has been ski jumping for about five years.

He used to jump snow banks with his cross-country skis, so his parents helped him get into downhill skiing.

After traveling an hour and a half from Mahtowa to Cloquet for a few years, Rodgers joined the ski jumping club at Mt. Itasca ski facility in Coleraine.

For three years, Rodgers has been thriving in quality instruction from Denney.

Denney once competed at an Olympic level for ski jumping and participated in the 1984 Olympics in Sarajevo, Bosnia.

Although he hasn't competed in about 10 years, he still spends a lot of time at the quaint but action-packed Mt. Itasca ski hill, passing his wisdom onto young folks who wish to continue participating in a sport that was very popular back in the '50s and '60s.

"We've lost numbers because of all the other opportunities, hockey and more recently snowboarding," Denney said while sitting in the ski jumping chalet. "Kids that snowboard are very similar to kids that ski jump. They like to fly, kinda crazy and are looking for the next more difficult thing to do."

Denney explained that he had the same mentality when he was young.

He and his brothers went so far as to build a wind tunnel from a school bus.

They chopped the front and back off, angled the front end to create a venturi and then retrofitted a system that measured lift and drag.

They crawled into a fiberglass mold and free-floated in the air currents created when the bus zoomed down the road at 50 mph.

They learned techniques and positions for various conditions -- Olympic mentality where small margins determine the difference between the pros and amateurs.

Denney says that what happens within the 200 millisecond window before leaving the jump makes all the difference.

"For every jump and every condition, there is an exact angle to jump at. The bigger the hill, the sharper the angle because you have to jump into the wind more," Denney said.

He said jumpers are trying to simulate an airplane that is flying for about 250 feet and 10 feet off the ground.

Technique also has evolved over the years.

While soaring, skis were once kept straight forward and positioned almost to the jumper's nose.

In the mid-eighties, skiers realized that putting the skis off to the sides was better because it functioned like a wing.

Around 1990, a guy from Sweden accidentally put a ski on each side of himself, which surprisingly functioned like fiberglass wings, cutting drag like a knife and launching the sport into a new era, an are that Denney is working diligently to pass onto others.

Denney enjoys teaching kids like Rodgers, and about 50 other young folks, ranging from 5 to 20 years old, on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

He said Mt. Itasca is a great place for families to come because of the array of winter sports to choose from.

"What's different about this little area (Mt. Itasca) is we combine recreations," Denney said. "Kids can come out and downhill ski, snowboard, cross-county ski and jump with a fairly high level of competition. Within each one of these venues, we have a group of kids that compete at a high level. We put kids in the junior Olympics every year."

"If someone is interested in learning how to ski jump, we will fit them in at any time, Denney said. "They can join our program and we will fix them up with equipment -- any age can come."