Aerial Skiing: Berman lands U.S. freestyle title

Despite its small size, Williams has produced its fair share of Olympians. That trend seems destined to continue into the 2002 Winter Olympics, where the world will likely be seeing U.S. Ski Team rookie and Williams first-year Marissa Berman compete in the freestyle skiing championships.

Berman took the first step towards the Olympics by winning the women’s aerial event at the Chevy Truck U.S. Freestyle Championships in Park City, UT. She won with a combined score of 165.75 after two jumps. The score placed her well ahead of second-place finisher Shannon Leotta (142.33). In the course of the victory, Berman also defeated 1998 Olympic gold medallist and reigning world champion Nikki Stone.

Berman’s road to victory began at Stratton Mountain in Vermont, where she started skiing when she was just two years old. The Mount Kisco, NY native did not begin freestyle skiing until she was 13 years old. Berman was first exposed to the sport by her brother, a former competitor, and through the freestyle program at Stratton.

She was later introduced to her specific event, inverted aerials, through a summertime weekend development camp at the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, NY. “I loved it from the first day,” said Berman. “For some reason, it didn’t seem strange to hurl myself off of large ramps into the pool. I thought it was the coolest thing I had ever seen.”

This all came in spite of the sport’s danger. Like many other extreme sports, jumping can be very dangerous and hard on the body. Berman notes that a simple mistake can be very costly in the sport since many ski jumpers are at heights above 40 feet. Freestyle skiers have very precise spots where they can land without getting hurt. A certain speed is required to complete the jump and land in those spots. The danger thus arises from the skier being unable attain that speed, a scenario much more likely to happen in the face of external factors such as wind.

Berman, while noting the obvious danger inherent in ski jumping, tries to block out her fears when attempting her jumps. “When you’re jumping, you can’t really be thinking about [the danger]. You have to be confident going into each jump and forget about all that. You have to be completely focused and ready for your trick. Your career as an aerialist would not last too long if you thought about how scary it was each time you went off the jump.”

Her ascent into the ranks of the world’s best freestyle skiers began in 1995 when she made the junior world team (the equivalent of a junior national team) for combined competition, which comprises all three aspects of freestyle skiing (moguls, inverted aerials and acroski). After two years of competition there, she was named to the U.S. Ski Team (senior national team) in inverted aerials for the 1997-98 season. The 1998-99 season marked Berman’s second year on the team.

Her years of preparation resulted in her March 22 win at the Freestyle Championships, televised on ESPN. Going into the competition, Berman didn’t know what to expect, especially since she hadn’t jumped into a while and was going to be competing against Stone. With that in mind, she concentrated more on what she had to do rather than on winning or beating the other women.

The result: a first-place finish in national competition. “The feeling was incredible,” said Berman, “After I landed my second jump, I was so excited to do just well. Even at that point, I wasn’t thinking about winning. I was just happy with my jumps and how they went.”

That day, she notes, everything seemed to click for her. It ended up being the highest score ever for her by over five points, “It felt great to end the season on such a good note. All in all, it was probably one of the most exciting days of my life. I just didn’t quite know what to make of all the reporters and interviews. That was definitely a new experience.”

Figured into all of this, however, is school. As expected, most people on the U.S. Ski Team don’t go to school simply because they have no time for it in the midst of all their training. In fact, most people told Berman that she would have to make a choice between school and skiing.

Berman, however, did not let the demanding nature of both activities deter her from coming to Williams. Citing her absolute love of Williams, in addition to her wanting to have a normal freshman experience, she decided to attempt the near impossible, competing at Olympic levels in freestyle skiing while simultaneously trying to stay on top of her grades at one of America’s toughest colleges.

Judging by recent performance at the U.S. Freestyle Championships and her time in the library, it seems as though she has been immensely successful on both accounts. “It’s really hard to do both (school and skiing) because they are each so demanding and time consuming. It’s a lot of work and a lot of pressure coming from both ends, but it was a choice I knew would be difficult so it didn’t come as a surprise.”

For her, it is a question of focus. “I’ve gotten pretty good at managing my time over the years between school, sports, and everything else. It’s not too bad if you stay focused and don’t waste time. Sometimes, the busier you are, the more you can get done.”

School has had its effects on Berman’s skiing. Normally, she trains in Park City or Lake Placid with the U.S. Ski Team. In the fall, she could only go to Lake Placid on weekends, though she did dry land training with the Williams alpine ski team (ski jumping is not a college sport) during the week. In addition, she could only compete in North American World Cup competitions in order to avoid conflicts with the school. During the height of ski season, Berman notes that she got little sleep because she was “always catching up with work and flying out to some competition.”

Despite the hectic schedule, she doesn’t regret having come to Williams. “But it (coming to Williams) was definitely worth it. I have met so many great kids and have had such a wonderful experience at Williams this year. I feel lucky just to be part of this school. It’s awesome. It really is.”

Berman hopes to continue ski jumping for the next few years. She stands an excellent chance of making the Olympic team since the top three or four women from the U.S. are allowed the chance to compete in the Olympics. The 2002 Olympics will likely force Berman to take some time off from school in order to train. She also hopes to compete in the 2006 Olympics.

However, Berman does know that she can’t ski forever. That is why, in addition to her Olympic ambitions, she hopes to have “a career and a normal life,” which will likely include graduate school as well.

In the meantime, she plans to start training for the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City.

She begins her summer training in early June, once again at either Lake Placid or Park City (though she might train on snow in Australia). Her training involves a lifting program designed specially for aerialists like herself, as well as sprints and plyometrics. During the summer, she will be doing a lot of work on trampolines (both free-jumping and using harnesses). The bulk of her training will be a simulation ski jump consisting of her jumping off a wooden ramp, covered with an artificial snow surface, into a pool. This time of simulation training, which Berman sees as being less tough on the body than regular ski jumping, is where most of the freestyle skiers first learn their jumps.

For Berman, there’s not much more to be left to learn when it comes to ski jumping, or for that matter, time management. The ability to maintain good academic standing at this school while also defeating Olympic gold medallists and winning national titles is a remarkable achievement.

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