The sport of ski jumping comes with a long list of physical and mental challenges, but Jose Miguel Banda's list was a little longer than most others.
Banda, 15, had never seen snow and never been on a pair of skis before this winter. The West High exchange student from Puebla, Mexico, arrived in Anchorage in August and by December was learning how to fly above snow-covered terrain.
"I didn't know anything about ski jumping," he said. "Don't be scared. I think that's the hardest thing."
Despite some early crashes, including one that broke a pair of skis, Banda said he never worried about getting hurt. He got good enough to prompt his coaches to select him as one of five Anchorage jumpers to compete in last month's Junior National ski jumping championships in Park City, Utah.
"It was a great experience for me," Banda said. "I learned so much about all those people."
One of Banda's greatest strengths is his desire to learn and engage in new things, said Dan Bevington, one of Banda's coaches.
Usually, the sport of ski jumping draws proficient skiers who are looking for more, so for Banda to absorb the sport so quickly was incredibly impressive, Bevington said.
"The sport is so technical," Bevington said. "They're really learning how to fly, to fly like a human wing off these jumps. It's huge."
Though Banda's English has improved steadily since August, some of the more complicated aspects of ski jumping didn't always immediately translate well.
"It's hard enough for an English speaker to listen to me," Bevington joked. "Jose Miguel was nodding his head a bunch. Sometimes he would interpret what he thought I was saying and try to apply it."
'HE COMPLETELY BIT IT'
Bevington, whose long history with the sport includes an attempt to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team in 1980, said the sport is growing in Alaska. Banda was one of 31 junior jumpers this winter, compared to just a handful of kids who came out when Bevington started coaching in 2005.
Banda, who said he enjoyed mountain biking back home in Mexico, didn't take long to show interest. He wanted to sign up almost as soon as he saw someone jump.
"The way you are in the air," he said. "You can't compare it to other sports."
Banda probably wouldn't have been exposed to ski jumping if his host family wasn't heavily involved in the sport. Vivienne Murray is a ski jumping program administrator who also happens to be Banda's host mother.
Murray said Banda started joining her family at the ski jumps. Once he expressed interest, she went about teaching him how to ski. His first time going down a hill didn't go so well.
"He went down the landing hill and completely bit it," Murray said.
It wasn't long, however, before Banda learned to handle himself on a pair of skis, which opened the door to his first jump on a 15-meter hill, the smallest of three jumps adjacent to the Hilltop Ski Area. The larger jumps are a 40-meter tower and a 64-meter hill, the measurements referring to the distance from the launching point to the bottom of the landing area.
There are only five kids who have attempted jumps from the top of the 64-meter hill, Murray said, and Banda is one of them.
"The four other kids had been skiing since they were like 2," she said. "There are a lot of proficient skiers who have skied their whole lives who would never go off those jumps."
BIG HIT IN PARK CITY
Olympic-sized hills are 90 and 120 meters, and a typical jump on a 90-meter hill can have the athlete soaring 110 meters, Bevington said. The Junior Nationals in Utah used a 64-meter hill, where some of Banda's best jumps reached around 35 meters, Bevington said.
Though Banda was not among the top competitors, he was a big hit in Park City. Most of the competitors were seasoned jumpers who were fascinated by Banda's story and enjoyed watching him take flight.
"They would start chanting his name at the top," Bevington said. "They were all really rooting for him. That's the real measure of his success."
Banda hopes to continue jumping whenever he gets the opportunity. He will go back home to Mexico in July, but Bevington said that doesn't mean he has to stop jumping. There are camps Banda can attend, even in the summer months.
"My point to Jose was: Listen, this doesn't have to be the end of your story," Bevington said.
Reach Jeremy Peters at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4335.