LAKE PLACID - Evan Bliss might come across as your average guy, but his job is anything but average.
Bliss is the head ski jumping coach for the New York Ski Educational Foundation.
Around here, where Olympic sports programs and venues are the norm, that might not seen like a big deal. However, there really aren't that many similar programs around the country, not with Olympic facilities and paid coaching staffs.
Evan Bliss stands next to the Olympic ski jumps in Lake Placid. (Photo — Mike Lynch)
"Not ones that pay as well and have a good structure like NYSEF," Bliss said.
Bliss said other places that have comparable programs are Steamboat Springs, Colo., Park City, Utah, and Fox River Grove, Ill.
"Everywhere else, it's all volunteer-based," the 26-year-old Bliss said.
NSYEF ski jumping offers several programs, including Grasshopper for children between about 6 and 8 years old. From there, children move up to the intermediate-size hills. The elite move on to the 90-meter and 120-meter hills.
Participants not only compete in Lake Placid, but they travel around the Northeast to smaller hills and some of the larger ones in the Midwest. Some compete internationally in events such as International Ski Federation (FIS) cups.
The NYSEF program and venues have played key roles in the development of athletes such as Saranac Lake Olympic ski jumper Peter Frenette, nordic combined Olympic champion Billy Demong and world champion ski jumper Lindsey Van. Olympian ski jumper Nick Alexander and Nick Fairall, who won the U.S. Olympic Ski Jumping Trials in Park City last month, are also NYSEF alumni.
"The NYSEF program, in general, the way I look at it is kind of a development team, another stepping stone to go on to bigger and better things," Bliss said.
An aspiring jumper
At one time, Bliss himself was a top ski jumper. He came up through the NYSEF ranks and went on to compete internationally in events such as the junior world championships, and later, Continental Cups for the U.S. team.
Bliss grew up in Lake Placid, attending public schools until his senior year, when he attended the National Sports Academy in Lake Placid. He went there because ski jumping required him to travel a lot and he missed a lot of classes. At the time, the public high school didn't have the sports program that it has now for traveling student athletes.
He graduated from NSA in 2005, a time he said was difficult for ski jumping athletes. Around that time, the U.S. Ski Team dropped its funding for ski jumping.
"We lost all the funding and the direction of where to go," said Bliss, whose younger brother Andrew is also a ski jumper. "It was a weird limbo period for a lot of us."
After graduating high school, Bliss said he moved to Park City, where he competed with the U.S. Development Team. It was a busy period of his life. He was working for the Utah Olympic Park in Park City 40 hours a week, training to be a ski jumper, and, for a short time, attending classes at a local college. Because of the hectic schedule, he gave up college, deciding instead to focus on his ski jumping career. Income came from work and grassroots fundraising.
Being a ski jumper allowed Bliss to travel to places such as Finland, Norway, Germany and Italy, which provided him with an education that most people aren't lucky enough to experience in their lifetime.
"I got to travel the world and the FIS Cup and Continental Cup circuit," Bliss said. "You get to see a lot of cool places and just travel. Yes, I can always go back to school, but I feel like traveling the world kind of in some ways is a pretty good education."
Eventually, Bliss decided that he wanted to move on from pursuing his Olympic dream. That brought him back to here where his ski jumping career began in Lake Placid. Bliss started jumping at age 8 in a NYSEF program. Bliss started in NYSEF's alpine program but switched after attending a program at the jumping hill with a couple of friends. He found jumping more enjoyable than alpine skiing.
"I grew up in this program," Bliss said. "Actually, Larry Stone, who is now still helping out with the program with the small hills, he was my head coach when I was growing up."
Stone, a longtime ski jumping coach, is now assistant coach to Bliss. When Bliss took over head coaching duties for NYSEF ski jumping, he replaced another former coach, Casey Colby, who went on to be the U.S. ski jumping team's development coach.
Like his coaches before him, Bliss has been able to take his own skiing experiences and use them when he coaches athletes like Miles Lussi and Gabby Armstrong of Lake Placid, who have grown up in NYSEF's jumping program.
"I can remember when I was their age, and you can have a breakthrough on the jump and you would be so ecstatic and happy," Bliss said. "I still get the same (feeling) coaching those guys when they make a change for the better. ... I get excited, even though I'm not doing it, but just seeing those guys making progress because I know how much fun it is to get better and go farther.
"You want to see all that hard work that they put in - in the gym, and coming when it's 30 below, or raining - you want to see that pay off."
Bliss is also happy to see the strides that the U.S. ski jumping program has made over the years. After its funding was dropped, an organization called Project X formed to help support jumping athletes. That program has evolved into USA Ski Jumping, a nonprofit organization that provides structure and support for elite U.S. ski jumpers.
"USA Ski Jumping finally got their stuff together, and you can see it paying off with these guys like Nick Fairall and Peter Frenette. They all have a structured program now," Bliss said.
The program's success also gives hope for younger jumpers currently coming up through NYSEF, the ones filling Bliss' old shoes.