He Longs to Leap: Thetford Student Shines as Ski Jumper

  • Thetford's Aiden Cudhea. (Valley News - Tris Wykes)

  • Aiden Cudhea, of Thetford, launches off the K90 jump at the Flaming Leaves Festival on Saturday in Lake Placid, N.Y. Courtesy photograph

  • Cudhea performs a training jump at the Lake Placid (N.Y.) Olympic Ski Jumping Coxplex last weekend. Cudhea jumped in the open and junior men competitions. —Courtesy photograph

  • Aiden Cudhea, left, observes video between recent ski jumping sessions with coach Larry Stone at the Olympic Ski Jumping Complex in Lake Placid, N.Y. —Courtesy photograph

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 10/12/2016 11:50:28 PM
Modified: 10/12/2016 11:50:34 PM

Thetford — Sophomore Aiden Cudhea has developed into one of the Thetford Academy boys soccer team’s most reliable defenders. When he isn’t preventing opponents from advancing on the ground, Cudhea has making plenty of his own progress through the air.

Cudhea, 15, has been a devoted ski jumper since fifth grade and has begun ranking among the top juniors in the east.

He earned his first major podium finishes in the Chicago area last month, landing in third place in both the U-16 and U-20 events at the Norge K70 Competition.

Last weekend, Cudhea took part for the first time in the barometric Flaming Leaves Festival in Lake Placid, N.Y., where he competed on the K90 ramp — the normal hill size for Olympic events — for the first time.

Interspersed with members of the U.S. national team to which he one day aspires, Cudhea was fourth among U-16 competitors in both Saturday’s junior men’s competition (11th overall) and the open competition (21st overall) on Sunday.

Cudhea was back in Thetford in time for school and soccer practice on Monday, as he has been so often after making weekend trips to Lake Placid the last several years. It’s a 3 hour, 15 minute ride one way, a worthwhile journey for the Cudhea family as Aiden continues to seek — and achieve — new heights.

“To be competing (in the same events as) the U.S. national team, with some of the best men and women ski jumpers, was just awesome,” Cudhea said before Tuesday’s soccer practice. “They’re the best, so seeing how they do, meeting them and keeping in touch, I think, is going to be a huge part of my success going forward.”

Cudhea decided on a whim to try ski jumping in fifth grade, learning from family friend and two-time Olympic ski jumper Mike Hammond, of Norwich. Cudhea later received further tutelage with Hammond through the Ford Sayre Ski Council, training on the K30 jump at Hanover’s Oak Hill and the K50 facility at Storrs Hill in Lebanon.

Cudhea later advanced to the nonprofit New York Ski Educational Foundation in Lake Placid, where he receives instruction from longtime Olympic-level coach Larry Stone and has access to the Olympic Ski Jumping Complex’s facilities.

For Cudhea, the allure of the sport is in the feeling of flight.

“I just love the rush. When you’re in the air, you feel weightless, like you can control anything you do with the slightest movements,” he said.

In Illinois, Cudhea made up for less-than-stellar distances with solid in-run, flight and landing style points to make his way to the podium. Distances were once again a challenge during the Flaming Leaves festival, exacerbated by low starting points on the ramp. The starting points are based on the best performers’ starts during training.

“They don’t want to put the safety of jumpers at risk by starting them too high and having them out-jump the hill,” Aiden’s father, Cameron Cudhea, said. “As a result, all competitors start from the same bar to make the competition equal. In training, Aiden usually starts on bar 18 or so. Because the best jumpers in the country were there Sunday, they set the start at bar 2. … Younger kids like Aiden did not have the speed or leg strength to start so low (and still get great results).”

Cudhea is always working on his positioning and technique during in-runs, when ski jumpers want to generate as little drag as possible in order to maximize speed, as well as during his flights, when some drag is desirable to help generate lift.

The latter beckons soaring with skis in a “V” shape, with the head placed down between the skis. That requires great flexibility, something the 5-foot-11 Cudhea constantly strives to increase.

“Your muscles tighten up playing soccer, so I’m always doing extra stretching on my own to try to make up for it,” he said. “Flexibility is one of the most important parts of ski jumping.”

The mental aspects the sport can be equally challenging, especially for someone as intensely motivated as Cudhea. Panthers soccer coach Mark Weigel says Cudhea is one of his hardest workers in general, but that he knows when to scale it down to aid execution.

Cudhea continues to develop similar habits when it comes to ski jumping.

“I always like to compete as hard as I can, but sometimes when you go super hard with ski jumping, you’re setting yourself up for something else to go wrong,” he said. “Relaxing and taking it slow can have the best effect on your flight.”

Cudhea has received guidance from other area ski jumpers, including recently retired two-time Olympian Nick Alexander, of Lebanon, and Tara Geraghty-Moats, a West Fairlee native who won her first national title last weekend.

Geraghty-Moats, a friend of Cudhea’s, has been thrilled to witness his improvements.

“Aiden is an exceptional athlete and an extremely hard worker,” Geraghty-Moats said in an email. “His progress from being a highly motivated, yet mediocre, middle school jumper with a lot of promise on the K30 to being able to competently compete with poise with jumpers who place in the top 20 in the world on the K90 is, to say the least, impressive.”

Cudhea is also inspired by Nick Fairall, the 2014 Olympic ski jumper and Andover, N.H., native who was paralyzed from the waist down during a World Cup training crash in Austria two winters ago.

Cudhea met Fairall at Flaming Leaves 2015, not long after Cudhea’s own training accident left him with a severely punctured lip and unsure he wished to continue jumping.

“I was the most scared I’ve ever been about ski jumping after that crash,” Cudhea said. “When I met Nick, he kind of kicked me in the butt and said, ‘No, man, you’ve got to keep getting after it.’ That really motivated me. I’ve been jumping the best in my life since then.”

Jared Pendak can be reached at jpendak@vnews.com or 603-727-3225.

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