Tom Kelly: Paige Jones — The Next Generation
The Schattenbergschanze is an imposing structure rising nearly 500 feet from the valley floor, with a backdrop of the Allgäu Alps towering behind. The ski jumps of Oberstdorf, a German village of 10,000 in western Bavaria, are among the most notable in the world — site of the annual Four Hills Tournament each December and the gathering spot for athletes from over two dozen nations for the FIS Nordic Ski World Championships.
Park City’s Paige Jones slid onto the bar at the top of the towering HS137 meter ski jump. Just 18, she has already accumulated a passport full of stamps and a worldly education in sport as an up-and-coming ski jumper.
She’s nervous as she adjusts her tiny frame into position, adjusts her goggles and takes some deep breaths.
“It’s a technique that my sports psychologist Nicole (Detling) told me about,” she said, “You breathe in really deep, shrug your shoulders all the way to your ears, and when you breathe out, you push your shoulders all the way down. And it’s supposed to work by just creating more tension so that when you release the tension, you release more tension and you’re more relaxed.”
Does it work?
“Oh, it does,” she said quickly. It’s normal to have anxiety and tenseness. “If I can bring myself from like a 10 down to eight or even seven, that’s a lot better even though I might want to be like a five.”
When she releases the bar and pushes out, she’ll be on a narrow inrun, building speed up to nearly 60 mph. Then she will silently float through the air — pushing well over a football field down the hill. For about five seconds, she will be like a bird in flight, the airflow under her skis holding her up. She’s literally flying. Then it’s a quick focus to stick the landing.
This week will mark the first time women have competed on the large hill at the World Championships. It’s been a battle to get there, just as it was to be a part of the Olympic program.
Paige Jones is the next generation of women’s ski jumping. She was just six in 2009 when Park City’s Lindsey Van won the very first World Championship. Four years later Parkite Sarah Hendrickson did the same. Both Van and Hendrickson have played a part in Jones’ career, both as role models and coaches.
“She’s very talented and has a lot of potential,” said Van, who coached her as a part of USA Nordic’s Fly Girls program when she began. “This is her first World Championships and I could definitely see she was nervous. I’m hoping it was a good learning experience for her. She has a lot of potential and I’m excited to watch her in the future.”
“Paige is super dedicated and intelligent,” said Hendrickson, who also coached her in Fly Girls and has followed her career. “I love the intensity that she provides within the training setting. The improvements that I have seen from afar in the last few years is amazing. She has huge potential within the next Olympic cycle and I am excited to watch.”
Jones began jumping at 9. She started in freestyle but didn’t like getting bruised on the rails. “But ski jumping was really fun for me.”
She didn’t know Van or Hendrickson at first, but soon picked up on their initiatives for the sport. “After I had been in a while and actually started competing, I looked up to those girls as they were trying to fight for getting women’s ski jumping more recognition and more competitions.”
She is also close to Olympian Abby (Hughes) Ringquist. “Sarah and Abby texted me before worlds,” said Jones, who was the top American in the opening women’s event — qualifying for the championship field and finishing 33rd.
The next generation of Park City jumpers definitely has potential to follow in their footsteps, especially Jones.
“I see myself in her quite a bit,” said Ringquist, who follows Jones from afar on live data feeds. “Even though my body is retired from sport, my passion is still right in it — almost like I’m jumping vicariously through Paige and this next generation.”
When Ringquist was a young ski jumper, female role models hadn’t materialized yet. “It’s extremely important for me to stay connected to the sport. The path is long and hard. I want them all to know that they have my support to help navigate their journey.”
A year ago, just before the pandemic, Jones was one of two U.S. women jumping at the Youth Olympic Games in Lausanne, Switzerland.
“It was pretty cool,” she recalled. “I made a lot of friends while I was there that I still keep in contact with. It’s a really cool atmosphere to get that many athletes together.”
Her takeaway, too, was that she was a bit behind other girls her age. It motivated her to train harder last summer. And it worked.
“At our first World Cup in Ramsau, Austria (December), I was closer than I thought I was going to be in qualifying,” she said. A month later, on one of her favorite hills in Ljubno, Slovenia, she qualified for the event and ended up 31st — nearly scoring World Cup points in just her second event against the best in the world.
Still, she was hungry for more “I was just 1.7 points away from scoring (top 30),” she said, “It always sucks to be 31st!”
Jones has spent the winter hopscotching the European continent from Austria to Slovenia to Finland to Romania to Germany. This trip has been over a month on the road, including World Cups, Junior Worlds in Finland and now World Championships in Oberstdorf.
“I definitely miss not being able to cook for myself,” she said. “And I miss my family and my cat a lot.” The cat, by the way, is called El Chubasco — Chubbs for short. “I suggested the name as a joke, but it was too good to pass up.”
Jones is very conscious of the historic nature of this week’s big hill for the women. But she takes it in stride.
“Women have shown that they can jump on the bigger hills just as well as the men,” she said. “It’s exciting that they’re finally presenting us with the opportunity to show what we can do.”
Wisconsin native Tom Kelly landed in Park City in 1988 (still working on becoming an official local). A recently inducted member of the U.S. Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame, he is most known for his role as lead spokesperson for Olympic skiing and snowboarding for over 30 years until his retirement in 2018. This will be his 51st season on skis, typically logging 60 days in recent years.
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This ski season was great once it got going, writes Tom Clyde. Being outdoors on the slopes was “a powerful and necessary thing this year.”