Fun read-today’s Wall Street Journal of all places. They forget to mention though that BBC likes to climb the hill on back side of Norge on their Tuesday night hilly rides!
One Ski Jump. One Dollar. Three Olympians?
How the Chicago suburbs became a hotbed of American ski jumping
Norge Ski Club in Fox River Grove
Photo: Ben Cohen/The Wall Street Journal
FOX RIVER GROVE, Ill.—The Norge Ski Club was founded more than a century ago, and for almost that entire time, its members have dreamed of competing in the Olympics. None of them ever did. The mere existence
of a ski jump in this suburban Chicago town was enough of a miracle.
“We’re this little club in Illinois,” said Norge coach Scott Smith. “We don’t even have mountains.”
Smith himself was one of those Olympic hopefuls, and he kept wondering long after he retired how the next generation of Norge’s ski jumpers might break through. About 15 years ago he had an idea: What if they
bought a bigger and better ski jump?
As it turned out, there was one for sale. It belonged to the rural town of Ely, Minn., and it was a hand-me-down that could be had for a bargain. The Norge Ski Club agreed to pay Ely’s city council precisely
And then something remarkable happened. The kids from Norge who learned their sport by launching themselves off Ely’s ski jump have developed into the best American men’s ski jumpers. There will almost certainly
be two and maybe even three of them at the Pyeongchang Olympics in February.
This little club in Illinois is likely to have as many ski jumpers on the U.S. men’s national team as the rest of the U.S. combined.
“Nice to hear it was put to good use,” Ely clerk-treasurer Harold Langowski said.
Norge Ski Club alumnus Kevin Bickner in a ski-jumping competition last year.
Photo: hendrik schmidt/European Pressphoto Agency
Nothing about Fox River Grove suggests it’s the epicenter of a Winter Olympics sport. The “SKI JUMP” signs that point to the club at the end of Ski Hill Road seem like a practical joke. This suburban town having
its own ski jump is so unheard of that some people in neighboring suburban towns have never heard of it.
Kevin Bickner used to be one of those people. He was a young boy in nearby Wauconda, Ill., when he first attended
the Norge Ski Club’s annual competition. Even then he thought it was strange.
“Like, whoa, what’s this ski jump doing here?” he said.
It was there because Norwegian immigrants brought the sport their country invented when they settled here. But they would barely recognize today’s ski jumpers. Those who learned at Norge, for example, were driven
up the secluded hill and then climbed nearly 200 steps until they reached the top of a ramp so high they could see Chicago’s skyscrapers on a clear day. They hurtled down at speeds approaching 50 miles per hour. And then it was time to fly.
The top of the hill at the Norge Ski Club in Fox River Grove, Ill.
Photo: Ben Cohen/The Wall Street Journal
The Norge Ski Club still exists only because of its annual event that draws thousands of locals. The club’s budget for the year depends on selling enough tickets, beer and Jägermeister that one day. The ideal
conditions are warm enough that people buy tickets but cold enough that people also buy beer and Jägermeister. Last year’s was delayed when it was too warm. “Wide World of Sports” host Jim McKay was once there when it was too cold.
“The coldest I ever was—it was not in Innsbruck, Austria or the French Alps,” he once said. “It was in Fox River Grove.”
Smith understood better than anyone the disadvantages of being a ski jumper from Illinois. He overcame them. He competed for the U.S. ski team. He coached at the 1992 Winter Games. He was recently elected to
the American Ski Jumping Hall of Fame, which is a real thing, and he’s the proud owner of a “SKI JMP” license plate on his pickup truck.
Photos: Ben Cohen/The Wall Street Journal(2)
He began to notice something unusual at the Norge Ski Club around the year 2000. The new kids were really, really good. If they had full-time coaching, Smith thought, they might even be good enough to make the
It was a little crazy to believe that. The country’s full-time ski-jumping teams were in Park City, Utah, Steamboat Springs, Colo., and Lake Placid, N.Y.—resort towns with long Olympic pedigrees and mammoth hills
that passed international standards. Norge had none of the above. But a little crazy had never bothered someone who had spent his entire life ski jumping.
“We came in here,” Smith said last week, standing near a horseshoe bar inside the Norge clubhouse, “had a beer, grabbed a couple napkins and started taking notes.”
Kevin Bickner trains last year in Germany.
Photo: Adam Pretty/Getty Images
Before long they had more kids flying more than ever. The problem was no longer the ski jumpers. It was the ski jump.
Norge had been using the same one since 1981, and it had steel guts dating back to the 1940s. It looked big—like a roller coaster that only went in one direction—but it wasn’t big enough. Norge’s most extreme
jump was a K-64, meaning the landing area of the hill began to flatten at 64 meters, but the Olympic jumps are K-90 and K-120. Smith knew they needed an upgrade.
That’s when they heard about a used ski jump for sale in the Iron Range of Minnesota four hours north of Minneapolis, two hours north of Duluth and barely south of the Canadian border. Ely is smack in the middle
of absolutely nowhere.
It was a big day for the small town when it unveiled its ski jump in 1982. But the timing was terrible. A downturn in the local mining economy soon drove people away from Ely, and there wasn’t enough interest
from the shrinking population to maintain the infrastructure for this niche sport. Ely’s ski jump had been idle for several years by 2003. “The only thing it would’ve been good for is salvage,” said Warren Nikkola, a retired plumbing and heating contractor
who coached Ely’s youth ski jumpers. “It was getting to be a headache.”
Nikkola knew about the Norge Ski Club. He’d actually been there. He’d even jumped there. And he liked the idea of the ski jump going to a good home.
Ely officials agreed. They quickly negotiated a deal for $1.
The Norge Ski Club had to dismantle the ski jump, haul it hundreds of miles on flatbed trucks, put the pieces back together in a parking lot, rent low-gravity bulldozers to smooth the hill’s grade and import
plastic matting from Finland for summer training. The whole project cost about $500,000. The construction took months—work stopped once when Native American bones were discovered—and only days before the annual event in January 2004 was it finally ready.
Smith personally christened the ski jump. He promptly face-planted. Everyone cheered.
Photos: Zuma Press(2)
Bickner was among the Norge ski jumpers who never knew anything but the Ely ski jump. He still remembers the first time he gathered the courage to hike all the way up—because he still remembers walking right
back down. “I was pretty terrified,” he said.
That seemed like a long time ago when he found himself in a similar position earlier this year. Except he was in Norway. And the ski-flying hill was three times the size of Norge’s.
Bickner took a deep breath, whizzed downhill and flung himself into the air. He remained there for the next eight seconds.
By the time he submitted to gravity, Bickner had traveled farther than anyone in the history of U.S.. ski jumping: 244.5 meters. A ski jump of 244.5 meters is as insane as it sounds. It’s more than 2 ½ football
fields. Bickner was in the air for a full home run longer than the last Major League Baseball season’s longest home run.
“We know he can be the best,” said USA Nordic Sport executive director Bill Demong. “That’s something we’ve never been able to say about an American ski jumper before.”
A medal in Pyeongchang is still unlikely. The U.S. hasn’t medaled in ski jumping since the very first Winter Olympics in 1924. The more probable improbability is
three members of the four-man team being Norge alumni.
Michael Glasder is another near-lock alongside Bickner, while A.J. Brown and Casey Larson are prime contenders for the last spot. Glasder’s childhood home was separated from the club by a pond, and he came to
practice by walking on the water when it froze over in winter. “I could see the jump sticking out over the trees from my bedroom window,” he said..
Not long ago, as he thought back on the deal that replaced the original ski jump outside Glasder’s window, Smith tried to recall how the Norge Ski Club paid the $1 it owed Ely. That’s when he realized: It didn’t.
“To be honest,” he said, “we never gave them anything.”
From: Greg Bach [mailto:bachbenefitgroup@...]
Sent: Thursday, December 14, 2017 6:52 AM
To: Greg Bach
Subject: One Ski Jump. One Dollar. Three Olympians? - The Wall Street Journal.
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