Sunday, May 20, 2018
Human Interest

In Florida, a magic carpet turns a molehill into a ski mountain

PINELLAS PARK

From the top of the ski deck, the view is terrifying.

Jamila Chedid, 27, scanned the scenery and stared at the crowd gathering below.

Flat fir trees with painted snow caps hugged the wall. Mannequins grinned in bright Under Armour jackets. Ahead, a dozen shoppers stood between shelves of boots to watch her slide down the cream carpet at Florida's only ski slope.

"Okay, keep your hands in front of you and bend your knees," said Michael Schenker, who teaches skiing at Bill Jackson's Shop for Adventure. "Are you ready?"

Chedid shook her head no.

"You're ready," the instructor said. "I'm going to start the deck rolling."

The last time Chedid went skiing, which was the first time, "wasn't fun at all," she said. Her boyfriend, who grew up skiing in Bosnia, took her to Vail with 10 friends. "I thought I'd just figure it out on the way down," said Chedid, a native Floridian. "When I fell, I couldn't even figure out how to get up."

After that first Colorado run, she took off her boots and hit the lounge. The next day, after almost sliding off the lift, she swore she would never go skiing again.

But then her boyfriend booked a trip to Salt Lake City for this month and she remembered that strange slope she had seen in the back of Bill Jackson's. On Wednesday, after working as a financial adviser at Merrill Lynch, she drove to the sporting goods store and Schenker taught her to get up. Saturday, she learned wedges and slip-sliding.

And Sunday afternoon — 12 hours after the men's downhill competition in Sochi — Chedid planted her poles in the carpet and faced her fears.

Skiers had raced down the Russian course beneath clouds, in 28-degree air, covering two treacherous miles and a 3,000-foot vertical drop, hitting speeds of 84 mph. American skier Bode Miller had warned of the course, "It could kill you."

Chedid was about to take off beneath the fluorescent lights, in room temperature air, to traverse 20-feet of rolling polyester along a 16-degree drop, maxing out at 8 mph. "The worst that can happen here," said the instructor, "is rug burn."

• • •

Every year before Thanksgiving, workers at Bill Jackson's turn the dive shop into a ski store, hauling in bibs and bindings and tearing down the back wall. There, across from the dressing rooms, is a man-made mountain — okay, a two-story hill — where more than 10,000 Floridians have learned to ski.

A motor on the left side of the frame drives a conveyor belt across three rollers beneath the carpet, which turns like a treadmill. The rug has to be replaced every five years. The belt runs bottom to top, so when skiers are in a stopped position — like a wedge or snowplow — they slide backward uphill. When they place their skis parallel, they glide down slowly, toward a safety bar at the bottom. The difficulty mirrors an intermediate slope, Schenker said. "But of course it's much safer, and slower."

Bill Jackson's son, Darry, bought the deck from a Houston company in 1980. In 1990, VISA filmed a commercial in the store. Would-be snowboarders started showing up around the same time.

"But we can't really snowboard here. There's too much friction," Schenker said. "And kids can't do it because there's not enough friction. You have to weigh at least 100 pounds."

The most difficult students, he said, are those who say they can already water ski. "So they want to lean back instead of forward," he said. "You have to un-teach them."

• • •

At the top of the ski deck, Chedid tugged at her lavender T-shirt. Her boyfriend turned his cell phone to video mode and gave her a thumb's up. She bent her knees, squared her shoulders.

"Okay, keep your weight on that downhill ski. Follow my lines," said Schenker, who had carved sweeping curves through the carpet for her to follow. "Eyes forward, hands out front. Remember, it's supposed to be fun."

Chedid took a deep breath and shoved off. Slowly, she traced her instructor's path through the pile.

"Good. Nice. See?" Schenker kept saying. "Now if you do it just like that in Utah . . ."

Where the air is icy and the snow is 6 feet deep and skiers are zipping all around you. And the mountain is real.

That night when they got home, Chedid's boyfriend turned on the Olympics. For the first time, she said, she watched skiing. "Actually, I studied it." After three days on the store's carpeted slope, after feeling her body sweeping down even that slight incline, she said she finally understood what the athletes were doing, how she was supposed to move. But she couldn't figure out how they made it look so easy.

News researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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