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Westby is part of ski jumping history

You might think of the Rockies when you think of American ski jumping, but the sport first took hold in the Midwest. And, tiny Westby has been a focal point since 1922.

That's when many of the Norwegians who had immigrated to this town in Vernon County got together to build what is now Snowflake Ski Club.

The club will host the 82nd annual ski jumping tournament Feb. 18-20. This writer has featured the event in past Sports Buzz columns, but the place where it is held, and ski jumping in general in the Midwest, have stories that should be told in this forum.

Why would Westby, a town of around 2,000, become so involved in the sport?

In Westby, skiing is heritage. Skis were the common means of winter travel, from the time this community was settled by Norwegian immigrants in 1846, until the 1930s.

Most of the current residents are of third, fourth, and even fifth generation, but the skiing tradition has remained.

This ethnic tradition, however, is only one of the factors that has contributed to making Westby a recognized ski center of the Midwest, and in the nation. Climate and topography played a part. Deep snow covers the countryside from December to March, as a rule; but there have been "open winters" also when snow has either been hauled in from the North or made by snow machines.

Volunteers have helped build the two-, five-, 15-, 30-, 50- and 90-meter hills which make Westby a leader in the ski jumping community. Many work very hard to groom the 118-meter jump used for the tournament every year.

They also help staff the tournament, when thousands of spectators, not to mention jumpers from all over the world, converge on the town.

The area doesn't have enough motels to accommodate everybody, so many of the residents open their homes to the jumpers for a week. Snowflake has more than 500 members, again from a town of 2,000.

Ski jumping's American roots go back to the 1880s. It began in the Midwest ... places like Red Wing, Minn., St. Paul, Minn. and Eau Claire. The first recorded North American distance record was set in 1887 by Mikkel Hemmestvedt. He flew 37 feet!

Four North American records have been set in Westby. In 1962, John Balfanz jumped 317 feet to set the record. Bjorn Wirkola flew 338 in 1969 to establish a new record. Gebhardt Aberer hit 361 in 1978, and Oystein Onsoisen 375 in 1979.

Before downhill skiing became a popular participant sport following World War II, most people's familiarity with skiing was tied to jumping. The Norge Ski Club in Chicago, one of the oldest ski clubs in the world, helped to bring visibility of the sport to urban areas. In 1939, and again in 1954, temporary jumps were erected in Soldier Field, now the home of the Chicago Bears. They were "snowed" with shaved ice.

Since the inception of the Winter Olympics in 1924, the Midwest has been very well represented in the Olympics. The development of Olympic facilities in Lake Placid and Salt Lake city have lessened the traditional Midwest dominance of the sport, but there are strong junior programs at many of the 15 or so Midwest jumping clubs, including Snowflake.

Many Olympians have competed at Snowflake. The local tournament was moved up when the Games were held in Salt Lake City so Olympic jumpers could compete in Westby before heading to Utah.

Westby is not the only ski jump in Wisconsin. Competition also is held in Iola (as part of the recently-featured Badger State Games), Minocqua, Wisconsin Rapids, Eau Claire and outside of Madison. Some other areas have smaller jumps that do not have competitions. Upper Michigan and Minnesota also are hot beds for ski jumping.

If you want to know more about the Westby competition and Midwest ski jumping in general, there are several good sources. The Snowflake club offers a book on the local jump.

A book, "Midwest Skiing: A Glance Back" by John Pontti, is available via Amazon.com. The proceeds are being used to raise funds for the National Ski Hall of Fame in Ishpeming, Mich.

Skijumpingcentral.com maintains a schedule of Midwest and international events, results of tournaments and some history of the sport. Skijumpeast.com is another good source for contemporary and historical information about the sport and places that host competition.

Talkbacks

OMCreader | Feb. 20, 2006 at 3:17 p.m. (report)

David Bullis said: I came across your article while trying to find what ever happened to Bjorn Wirkola, having just watched some jumping on the Olympics. Both my wife and I were in Westby in 1969 when he was there and we talk about it often. While Kentucky residents now we miss the Snowflakes jumps in Westby.

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