What does it feel like to ski jump? Fit City gives it a go

Pam LeBlanc learned the basics of ski jumping today. Olympian Todd Wilson had her start on this tiny jump at Howelsen Hill in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Chris LeBlanc photo

Holy flying squirrels, that was nuts!

I enlisted the help of two-time Olympian Todd Wilson to coach me over a ski jump at Howelsen Hill here in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

In a nutshell: Boy, those Olympic-sized jumps make the Super Slides I loved when I was a kid look like toddler’s slide at the neighborhood park. Thankfully, I didn’t go off one of those.

Todd Wilson points out the ski jump at Howelsen Hill in Steamboat Springs. Chris LeBlanc photo


Ski jumping is all about progression, and I started on the tiniest of jumps, one that stood maybe a foot high on a gently sloping hill.

Even that looked a little threatening from my vantage point, though. (Try standing at the top of a hill and looking down at a jump when you can’t see the landing.) But Wilson walked me through the procedure – assume the tuck position skiing up to the jump, lock knees and ankles when you’re airborne, and absorb the shock when you land.


Pam LeBlanc practices her tuck position. Chris LeBlanc photo


A bunch of kids were riding a moving sidewalk up the hill, watching me sweat out the moments leading up to my first attempt.

“Are you going off that jump?” one of them asked.

“Yep, I’m trying,” I told the 5-year-old.

“Well, we’re doing that big jump over there,” he told me. “And we’re only in second grade.”

Point taken.

Once you start down the runway, you’re committed, as Pam LeBlanc learned. Chris LeBlanc photo

We did the tiniest hill six or seven times, then moved up a step, to the not-quite-as-tiny jump. That frayed my nerves a bit, but I conquered it too, with Wilson’s help.

“Ski jumping is like hitting a golf ball off a flatbed truck going 60 mph, and you have to hit the ball when you pass a sign on the side of the road. And if you miss, something throws you off the truck,” he told me.

Todd Wilson coaches Pam LeBlanc in ski jumping at Howelsen Hill. Chris LeBlanc photo

It’s all about commitment. Once you start down the in-run, the chute leading to the jump, you can’t snow plow, try to slow down or turn off. You’re doing it.

And I did. I screamed, freaked out a little inside my head, and did it.

And it was awesome.

Story coming soon.

Fit City heads to Colorado to check out this year’s ski conditions

Mike Stellfox takes a break from snowboarding to take in the view at Steamboat Springs Ski Resort. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman


I’ve landed in Colorado this week to check out what’s new at some of the resorts.

First on my list? Steamboat Springs. Did you know you can catch a direct flight from Austin to Steamboat on Via Air?

Riding a lift to the top of Steamboat Springs resort. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman

This morning I managed to track down some friends from Austin for a day of downhill skiing. The resort got some snow two days ago, and more is in the forecast. Today’s skies were gray as dryer lint, and we headed to the trees and bump runs for fun.

You know you’re almost at Steamboat Springs when you start seeing signs for F.M. Light & Sons mercantile. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman

Tomorrow I’ll be doing the same, and on Tuesday I’m going to attempt to learn how to ski jump. (Yep, that huge jump that they do in the Olympics, only I’m going to start with a baby jump. I hope.)

On Wednesday I’m packing my bags and  heading down to Copper Mountain for a few more days of skiing.

Nothing like a beer on the porch to wrap up a day of snow skiing at Steamboat. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman

Got any suggestions for me while I’m here? Fire away!


Maks and Val Chmerkovskiy, Tony Dovolani promise fun with a ‘side effect of fitness’ at Austin dance studio

I’m much better at wiping out on water skis, crashing my mountain bike into cactus and taking tumbles while trail running then I am at ballroom dancing, but the stars behind the new Austin location of Dance With Me say that’s not a problem.

Maks Chmerkovskiy, Tony Dovolani and Val Chmerkovskiy, three popular pro dancers from the television show “Dancing with the Stars,” popped into Austin on Thursday night to celebrate the grand opening of their newest dance studio in the Domain Northside. I managed to squeeze in a quick interview before hordes of women in sequined dresses mobbed them.

People wait in line to take photos with Dancing with the Stars professionals Val Chmerkovskiy, Tony Dovolani and Maks Chmerkovskiy in Austin, Texas, on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2018. NICK WAGNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

The stars assured me that they can teach just about anybody – even people like me – to dance, regardless of skill and coordination. The studio offers private lessons, group classes, lessons for couples getting ready for their weddings and people who use wheelchairs. It caters to all ages.

“If anybody’s got two left feet, don’t worry – we’ve got a closet full of right feet,” Dovolani said.

Point taken.

Melanie Varnell strikes a pose with Dancing with the Stars professionals Tony Dovolani, left, and Val and Maks Chmerkovskiy during the opening of Dance With Me, a dance studio in the Domain Northside, in Austin, Texas, on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2018. NICK WAGNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

The Austin location of Dance With Me marks the 11th to open in the United States, and the fourth in Texas. Why Austin?

“We have fans from all over country, and obviously Austin has such an incredible dance community and they kept requesting us to open a studio,” Dovolani said. “We wish we had opened up earlier, because we didn’t realize how cool everybody was.”

Yes, that Austin cool factor. But can we dance? And if we do, will we drop pounds like the celebrities that go on the show to compete?

“This isn’t a fitness destination, this is more a fun destination with a side effect of fitness,” Maks Chmerkovskiy said.

I like that side effect. But still, can we dance?

“Like we’ve been saying all day, it’s really designed for people who don’t know how to dance or aren’t comfortable or confident on their feet or in high heels,” Val Chmerkovskiy said. “This is the place that helps ease your way into the world of dance and also the world of self expression and physically feeling good, expanding your range, doing something outside your comfort zone.”

Dancing with the Stars professionals Val Chmerkovskiy, left, Tony Dovolani and Maks Chmerkovskiy pose for photos during the opening of Dance With Me, a dance studio in the Domain, in Austin, Texas, on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2018. NICK WAGNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

The studio teaches all types of partner dancing, with a focus on ballroom.

“That’s our background,” Dovolani said. “(But we teach) whatever’s trendy, whatever makes the masses feel good. We tailor this experience to the individual. It’s more about expanding your range of movement in general.”

And yes, we’re in Texas, so two-stepping’s on the menu.

No partners needed, either. “You don’t need a partner, just the spirit, the courage to make the first step and we take care of the rest,” Val Chmerkovskiy said.

“All you need is curiosity,” Dovolani said. “If you’re curious, come in and try it out. I’ve yet to come across anybody we couldn’t teach.”

Before we left the pro dancers to their fans, we had one more question. That whole Rick Perry thing – our former governor showed lots of enthusiasm when he appeared on “Dancing With the Stars,” but he didn’t make it too far in the competition.

“The moral of the story is, if Rick Perry can dance, anybody can dance,” Val Chmerkovskiy said.

Haven’t registered to vote? Drive-through (or bike-through) here in 3 minutes

Pam LeBlanc, on bicycle, stands next to Bill King and Ana Salas-Porras, who have set up a voter registration station in front of their home.


The deadline to vote in the March 6 primaries is fast approaching, and Bill King and Ana Salas-Porras want to make sure you are prepared.

The couple, who live at 4507 Shoal Creek Boulevard, have set up a drive-through (or bike-through!) voter registration station in front of their home. They say the process takes only 3 minutes.

As of about 5:30 p.m. Thursday, they hadn’t gotten any takers, but they’d only been on duty 15 minutes. Besides, King noted, maybe they at least reminded someone to register.

The two, who are retired, say they plan to set up their station again on Friday.

The deadline to register to vote in the March 6 primary is Feb. 5.


Drink beer, throw sharp objects, have fun at Urban Axes

Pam LeBlanc hones her axe-throwing skills at Urban Axes on Jan. 21, 2018. Photo by Julia Robinson

Nothing makes me feel like a butt-kicking, name-taking adventure journalist more than sending an axe whirling over my head and hearing it stick – with a satisfying thunk – in the center of a bull’s eye.

RELATED: Forget nightclubs – toss hatchets instead at Urban Axes

That’s what happened last weekend, when I dropped by Urban Axes on Airport Boulevard to check out the league play at the new axe throwing venue.

Nailed it. Photo by Julia Robinson

The place was packed. I met guys in kilts, women wielding axes covered in glitter and googley eyes, and plenty of people who got their kicks by playing with sharp objects.

To add to the excitement, customers are allowed to bring their own food and drink into the venue. The refreshments of choice? Beer and tortilla chips. (Yes, you heard that right, it’s perfectly acceptable to booze it up while you fling axes.)

Earl Ball, center, gives Pam LeBlanc tips as she hones her skill at Urban Axes. Her husband Chris LeBlanc, right, laughs nervously. Photo by Julia Robinson for American-Statesman

Axe throwing first became popular in Canada, where there’s not much to do in the winter other than throw axes at targets. Now it’s growing in popularity here, where there’s plenty to do, but maybe none of it as appealing as drinking beer and throwing axes.

I’m writing about the adventure for an upcoming Fit City column. Stay tuned.

And watch out for flying objects.

What should you expect on the new Austin Marathon course? We asked a coach

The Austin Marathon got underway Sunday morning at first light as runners made their way south across the Ann Richards Congress Avenue Bridge. ZACH RYALL / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Here’s my hot tip for the upcoming Austin Marathon: Bank time and energy.

I just got back from previewing the new route with Chris McClung, an elite runner, coach and co-owner of Rogue Running.

We spent an hour and a half driving the route, which for the first time in years ventures into East Austin and wraps with a brutal uphill climb up 11th Street, just a few blocks from the finish on Congress Avenue.

RELATED: Is new marathon course easier? Not so fast, elite runners say

I’ll detail his specific tips in an upcoming Fit City column, but in a nutshell, here’s his advice: Don’t get overzealous early, even if you feel good,. Let those hills slow you down, go slower than your target pace and don’t worry if people pass you in the first 18 or so miles.

University of Texas students Elaine Garner and Sarah Warnke smile as the receive their belt buckle medals after finishing the Austin Half Marathon presented by NXP. Tom McCarthy Jr. for AMERICAN-STATESMAN

If you’ve done it right, you’ll have energy to take advantage of the flats near the end, and build some speed toward the finish – saving a little bit for the last climb up 11th Street.

“You may not run your fastest race in Austin, but you can run your greatest race,” McClung says. “This course requires execution. In Austin, unless you run each section as you should, it’s going to chew you up and spit you out.”

McClung will give a course strategy talk for runners tackling the Austin Marathon and Half Marathon at 6:30 p.m. Feb. 9 at Rogue Running, 410 Pressler Street.

Runners celebrate as they cross the finish line in the Austin Half Marathon presented by NXP Feb. 19. Tom McCarthy Jr. for AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Expect warm temperatures – and maybe rain – at Sunday’s 3M Half Marathon

The 3M Half Marathon kicks off Sunday morning. Photo courtesy High Five Events

The cold bomb has dissipated and the weather – surprise! – looks unseasonably warm and possibly a little wet for Sunday’s 3M Half Marathon.

According to KVUE, we’ll see a low of 57 and a high of 72, with a 50 percent chance of rain on Sunday.

Nearly 7,000 people have registered for the race so far, and organizers are expecting the largest field in race history. Registration closes Saturday.

The 3M typically unfolds fast and furious, on a mostly downhill, point-to-point course that starts on Stonelake Boulevard in North Austin and finishes near the Texas State Capitol. That’s a 300-foot elevation drop, which can mean sore quads for runners not used to running long stretches of downhill. (Yes, I know this from experience.)

RELATED: What do runners think about while they run?

The race starts at 7:30 a.m.  A finish line festival will include a beer garden, music and food trucks.

Martin Fagan holds the men’s course record of 1 hour, 1 minute and 5 seconds, set in 2009. Jacquline Nyetipei holds the women’s record of 1 hour, 9 minutes and 35 seconds, set in 2008.

This year’s elite field includes Anita Perez, Matt McCurdy; Brooke Torres; Cate Barrett, Kaitlyn Johnson, Heather Zytkewicz, Randi Burnett, Joey Whelan, Natasha Van der Merwe and Edie Stevenson.

Also expected to compete is triathlete Laurie Allen, who was paralyzed in a fall three years ago. She’ll race on a hand cycle.

For more information go here.

Want more bikes in Austin? So does Katie Smith Deolloz, Bike Austin’s new executive director

Bike Austin has named Katie Smith Deolloz its new executive director. Photo courtesy Bike Austin


Look for Katie Smith Deolloz riding a bike, walking or taking a bus, but don’t expect to see her driving a car. And now, look for her at the helm of Bike Austin.

The non-profit organization, which promotes cycling for transportation and recreation, has selected Deolloz as its new executive director.

Deolloz, her husband and two children don’t own a car, and want to show others how it’s possible to live without one in Austin. They live near a Capital Metro bus line and a bike route. She is founder of ATX Walks, which leads community walks and offers coaching services.

“The city of Austin has reached a critical juncture with regard to transportation, and Bike Austin is poised to demonstrate to the community, through both education and advocacy, that cycling can be integrated into the normal activities of daily life,” Deolloz said in a press release. “We look forward to partnering with other organizations to promote solutions that will serve people of all ages and abilities in our community.”

Bike Austin was created when the recreational Austin Cycling Association merged with the advocacy group Bike Austin. Deolloz takes over from Mercedes Feris, who decided to transition out of the position.

RELATED: Pam LeBlanc hits the road to try new bike share system


“The board knew that to maintain the momentum we’ve built over the past three years, we would need a dynamic, visionary leader to assume the role,” Hill Abell, owner of Bicycle Sport Shop and president of the Bike Austin board, said in a press release. “As every Austinite is aware, we have an enormous mobility challenge as our city grows, and the manner in which we reimagine how we get around town is an opportunity that Katie is well-prepared to tackle.”

Deolloz is a member of the City of Austin’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Councils, a board of member of the non-profit organization Walk Austin. She graduated with a kinesiology degree from the University of Texas, where she was a member of the UT Women’s Rowing Team.

Many black Americans can’t swim, and Olympian wants to change that

Members of Sigma Gamma Rho sorority listen to Olympic medalist Cullen Jones during a learn-to-swim clinic at Austin Aquatics and Sports Academy on Saturday. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman


Cullen Jones talks about the importance of learning to swim at a clinic Saturday. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman


Segregation and fear have long kept many black Americans from learning to swim.

Blacks were historically denied access to public swimming pools and beaches. As a result, swimming never became ingrained in their culture.

In a 2017 study, researchers at the University of Memphis and the University of Nevada-Las Vegas found that nearly 64 percent of African-American children today have no or low swimming ability. That compares to 45 percent of Hispanic children and 40 percent of Caucasian children.

That point was driven home last weekend, when I dropped by Austin Aquatics and Sports Academy, where Cullen Jones, an African-American swimmer with two gold and two silver Olympic medals to his name, was teaching a learn-to-swim clinic for a group of African-American women.

Cullen Jones, right, works with a member of Sigma Gamma Rho sorority at a learn-to-swim clinic on Saturday. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman

I listened in as Jones introduced himself and explained the importance of knowing how to swim to the women, who perched a little nervously on benches. The women ranged in age from their 20s to their 50s, and some of them had never gotten in a swimming pool before. Others had been in a pool, but weren’t confident swimmers.

I take my swimming skills for granted. I swim 2 or 3 miles with a U.S. Masters team four or five times a week. I love the water and feel comfortable there.

Not so the women of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, who faced their fears head on last weekend. As I watched, Jones encouraged them into the pool. He taught with humor and persistence, and reminded me that swimming is a life-saving skill we should all know, no matter our cultural background.

Olympic gold medalist Cullen Jones nearly drowned when he was 5 years old. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman

When class started, some of the women hesitated to even put their face in the water. Midway through the class, they were kicking across the water with a kickboard – a huge accomplishment, rewarded each time by cheers of support from their classmates.

I’d forgotten how that must feel – the uncertainty and fear of what the water holds.

The clinic was part of USA Swimming’s Swim 1922 program, a partnership between USA Swimming and the sorority, designed to increase swim participation and decrease drowning rates within the African-American community.

The 20 or so women at Saturday’s clinic listened intently as Jones, who grew up in the inner city of New York and New Jersey, explained that he got into swimming after nearly drowning at an amusement park when he was 5 years old. Lifeguards pulled him out of the water and performed cardio pulmonary resuscitation, saving his life. That experience spurred Jones’ mother enrolled him in swim lessons.

Members of Sigma Gamma Rho listen to Cullen Jones talk about the importance of learning to swim. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman

“Swimming wasn’t something I was naturally drawn to,” he told the women.

He ended up loving it, and was good at it – so good that he eventually won a fistful of medals in relays and one individual freestyle event at the 2008 and 2012 Olympic games.

He wanted to give back, and now teaches other African Americans to get involved in swimming through the USA Swimming program.

But why the discrepancy in swimming skills among racial groups? A couple of factors come into play.

“Sometimes we pass things on generationally,” said LaShonda Johnson, southwest regional director of Sigma Gamma Rho. “Income and access play a role. Some people just don’t have access, so they never learn.”

Cullen Jones works with a member of Sigma Gamma Rho on Saturday at Austin Aquatics and Sports Academy. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman

Knowing how to swim, she said, is important, and not just to reduce drowning rates. “It’s great for exercise and healthy living. This is something you can do forever.”

At Saturday’s clinic, Jones gently teased the women about one other reason some black Americans balk at the idea of getting in a pool – the effect of chlorinated water on hair.

“You all have swim caps on, so I don’t want to hear nothing about hair,” he told them.

Yolanda Castillo, chair of the local Swim 1922 program, told me she’s taken swim lessons before, but still harbors a fear of deep water. Some of her family members have never learned how to swim.

Some of the members of Sigma Gamma Rho who attended a learn-to-swim clinic on Saturday had never been in a pool. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman

“When (Jones) said we can’t stand up in the pool, I felt a little anxious,” she said. But she knew she wanted to get over that, because she believes knowing how to swim could one day save a life.

Jones reminded the group that drowning ranks as the second leading cause of accidental death under the age of 14, behind car wrecks. He also noted that drowning rates are much higher among blacks than other ethnic groups. Children, he said, are four times more likely to learn how to swim if a parent knows how.

“Once you learn, it’s like riding a bicycle. You never forget,” Jones said.

What’s it like to take a run on an Olympic bobsled track? I found out yesterday

Highlights of yesterday? A bobsled run at Utah Olympic Park, where the 2002 Winter Olympics took place.

The Winter Olympics are fast approaching, and to get in the spirit I’ve been mingling with Olympians here in Park City, Utah.

The highlight, though, came when I piled into a red, bullet-shaped bobsled and rocketed down the same track used in the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics.

That’s me right behind the pilot, wearing a pink helmet.

As one the attendants said, it’s sort of like putting four people into a bathtub. It’s a noisy ride, too, and we hit a top speed of 62 miles per hour as we whipped through 10 turns on our way down the track. (We started two-thirds of the way up, to keep things safe.) The run lasted 49.7 seconds.

Getting in a bobsled is kind of like stuffing four people in a bathtub.

Carl Roepke, a velvet-voiced announcer who has called the last bobsled event at the last six Olympic games, took time to chat at the bottom of the run. Roepke is headed to South Korea in a few weeks, where he’ll call this year’s event. He shared a secret: Sometimes, he plays music on headphones while he’s announcing so he can follow a beat while he commentates.



The bobsledding experience wasn’t my first brush with Olympic fun of the day. I started by tossing back eggs Benedict and fresh squeezed orange juice (at the amazing Five 3eeds) with former U.S. mogul champion Hannah Kearney, who won Olympic gold in the sport in 2010 and tacked on a bronze in 2014.

I had breakfast with Olympic gold medalist Hannah Kearney. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman



She brought her medal – thicker than a pancake and nearly as big – along for show and tell, and explained a little more about the sport, where athletes are judged in three core areas as they barrel down a short, bumpy run – form in the turns, speed, and the wow factor and difficulty of their jumps.

Kearney, now 31, went to three Olympic games. In Vancouver, she tucked a note in her pocket that said, “I’m here to win a gold medal. I’m ready.” She did just that. She followed up with a third place finish in 2014, then retired in 2015.

I wrapped up the afternoon with a fitness class with former Olympic mogul skier and cyclist Jillian Vogtli, who now leads wellness and fitness classes in the Park City area.

I’m headed to the Park City ski area slopes today, and tonight I’ll be in the stands watching the FIS Visa Freestyle International Ski World Cup event.

Stay tuned…