By Leah Vann
An uncharacteristically large, steep hill lies in the depths of the Fox River Forest Preserve in Fox River Grove. More than 100 years ago, a group of Norwegian immigrants deemed it fit for one of their favorite sports, creating a tradition that persists today.
Every year, world-class ski jumpers migrate to Fox River Grove, a village in McHenry County, just over 45 miles northwest of Chicago’s loop, for America’s oldest ski jumping competition at the Norge Ski Club. The club traces its heritage back to those original immigrants.
The Annual Winter Ski Jump Tournament entered its 115th year of competition on Jan. 25-26 and welcomed 107 of the world’s most elite junior and professional ski jumpers to compete in front of a crowd of 10,000 Chicago-area residents.
“Our claim to fame is that we have the longest running ski jumps in America,” said Norge Ski Training Center chairman Guy Larson.
New Hampshire’s Ford Sayre Ski Club athlete Evan Nicholas soars over the crowd at the Annual Winter Ski Jump Tournament on Jan. 26 in Fox River Grove. Nichols won the Men’s U.S. Cup division of the tournament. The tournament is a fundraiser for the Norge Ski Club, which trains local ski jumpers competing in the United States Ski and Snowboard Association’s Central Division and, eventually, at the national and international levels. It’s mostly run by volunteers, but has three part-time paid coaches. The division includes clubs in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan as well as Illinois. Larson said the club will receive about $80,000 after overhead costs from the tournament. But it’s more than that, it’s a tradition. (Leah Vann/Medill) The annual Winter Ski Jump Tournament hoists the flags and signs of all four countries and eight American states competing on Jan. 26 in Fox River Grove. “We have never cancelled a tournament in the history of a club since 1905,” Guy Larson said. “From hell or high water we have somehow pulled off a tournament.” Charlie Sedivec, Norge Ski Club director of public relations, said that during winters with inadequate temperatures or snow cover, the club has brought snow by train from Michigan, hauled and crushed ice from Jefferson Ice company and went to ice skating rinks to pick up the mounds of frozen dust collected by the Zamboni, which cleans the ice, to prepare the ski jumps for competitors. “In 1985, it was 30 below 0 and we still had a pretty good crowd,” Sedivec said. “We get the people that don’t mind the cold, know how to dress for it and some have made it a tradition for 50-60 years. It’s fun to see some of the same people that keep coming by each year.” (Leah Vann/Medill) Marty Knapp, a contractor, board member and former ski jumper with the club, wears a Viking costume every year to honor the club’s Norweigian roots. Knapp’s parents moved to Chicago from Norway. Growing up, he spent most of his weekends ski jumping at the Norge Ski Club, staying in his parents’ cottage on the grounds. (Leah Vann/Medill News Service) “We lived in Chicago, so back in the 40s that was a really long haul to come out here,” said longtime Norge Ski Club contractor and board member Marty Knapp. “I never got good enough like the kids now and training got so efficient. If I could start my life over again now I would be a reasonably good ski jumper.” But the idea to wear a Viking costume originated in a regular board meeting. One of the members of the club brought in a Viking helmet and suggested everyone wear one to meetings. When Knapp tried it on, everyone deemed it a perfect fit. He added a costume to go with the helmet for a local parade, then decided he’d dress up for the tournament. “I always considered the young kids that come to the tournament got so bored after 20 minutes of watching ski jumpers, so I used to carry a fake sword and a shield and I would chase the kids around a little bit,” Knapp said. The 79-year-old has now worn the costume every year for 40 years. (Leah Vann/Medill) The center hill is the largest ski jump at 70 meters high. Skiers sit atop the tower on a bar with their skis anchored into the grooves of the track called the, “inrun.” As they travel downward, they begin their jumping motion at the last few feet of the in run. The “knoll” is the region of the hill that runs to the “P-point,” or the blue line. The blue line is the steepest portion of the hill, while the red line is the point where the hill begins to flatten. Judges stand alongside each marked distance to mark how far a skier has jumped once he or she lands. Now computers do the measurements, but judges still stand as a backup system in case of any technical difficulties. Skiers can also jump when the hill does not have snow, since the surface is made of a plastic-like material. The competition begins with an opening test run jump by the hill captain. According to Sedivec, no one has ever fallen on the first jump in the tournament’s 115 years. (Leah Vann/Medill) A line of ski jumpers climb to the top of the inrun to take on the largest jump at Norge Ski Club. (Leah Vann/Medill) Women’s ski jumping wasn’t added to the Winter Olympic games until 2014. Now the young girls can aspire to take ski jumping to new heights. Norge Ski Club currently has one girl, Cara Larson, on Team USA. (Leah Vann/Medill) New Hampshire’s Andover Outing Club athlete Henry Johnstone leaves the inrun to take flight. Coming off the inrun, skiers can reach speeds as high as 50 miles per hour. (Leah Vann/Medill) Minnesota’s St. Paul Ski Club athlete Adeline Swanson takes flight. She holds her skis in the “V” position, in order to maximize lift in the air. Swanson won the Female U.S. Cup competition. Ski jumping is scored on distance traveled and style points. (Leah Vann/Medill) Minnesota’s Itasca Ski Club athlete Casey Flett prepares for landing. (Leah Vann/Medill) New York Ski Federation’s Elise Loescher slows her landing before coming to a stop following her jump off the 70-meter hill. Some skiers slid as far as the blue fence line because of the slippery, slushy snow. (Leah Vann/Medill) Slovenia’s Nik Fabian won the Norge Ski Club’s event in the Five Hills Tournament with a leap of 76.5 meters. “This is my fourth time coming here,” Team Slovenia athlete Nik Fabian said. “For the World Cup [competitions] in Slovenia, there’s no crowd. So when we come here, it’s a great atmosphere.” The Five Hills Tournament is a series of international ski jumping competitions across the Midwest. Norge Ski Club was the fourth destination of the tournament. Skiers competed in Eau Claire, Wisconsin; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Ishpeming, Michigan; and Westby, Wisconsin, as well as in Fox Fiver Grove. While each individual tournament is among the oldest in the U.S., the idea to bundle them into a five-tournament series began eight years ago to foster added competition in the U.S. Fabian won the Five Hills competition at Norge with teammate Nejc Toporis close behind in second. Finland athlete Juho Ojala came in third. America’s Central Division ski jumpers have built a successful record over the years since they can easily travel to ski jumps across the Midwest. The Central Division has 12 active ski jumps, the most in the nation. New York, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Vermont are in the East Division. Colorado and Utah make up the Rocky Mountain Division. The Pacific Northwest includes Washington, and Alaska has its own division. In 2018, the Norge Ski Club qualified three of its athletes, Casey Larson, Michael Glasder and Kevin Bickner, for the American Olympic team. It was the first time in its 115 years of existence that Central Division athletes qualified for the Olympics. (Leah Vann/Medill) The crowd gathers on the side of the ski jump for beverages. The party atmosphere of the tournament brings people together. Local vendors sponsor the tournament by providing food and beverage to create a party-like atmosphere for everyone. “I think we’re capturing those weekend warriors who love to tailgate,” Larson said. “The way for us to grow the sport is not through the tournament. When someone gets a big jump over 70 meters and the whole place roars, like wow, they are actually watching.”
Skiers enjoy the rowdy crowd.
“I have been here the last 13 years,” said skier Nathan Mattoon of the Flying Eagles Ski Club in Wisconsin. “You guys get the biggest crowd in the U.S., so it’s a fun event. It’s very high-grade competition. We have a lot of people from Europe and a lot of younger jumpers.” (Leah Vann/Medill)
Photo at top: New Hampshire’s Ford Sayre Ski Club athlete Evan Nicholas soars over the crowd at the Annual Winter Ski Jump Tournament on Jan. 26 in Fox River Grove, Illinois. (Leah Vann/MEDILL)