By Robin Cherry
Park City, Utah. Lake Placid, New York. Fox River Grove, Illinois. All three of these cities have world-class ski jumps. The first two hosted the Winter Olympics; the third is in a suburb of Chicago—not exactly a city known for its mountainous terrain. That’s why you do a double take when you see a 200-foot-high ski jump smack in the middle of Fox River Grove. The ski jump is owned and managed by the Norge Ski Club, the oldest continuously open ski club in the United States. It was founded in 1905 by a group of Norwegian immigrants who weren’t about to let a little thing like flatlands keep them from their beloved ski jumping.
Ski jumping was founded, not surprisingly, in Norway by a Danish-Norwegian lieutenant. In 1809 Olaf Rye launched himself 31 feet in the air to show off his ski jumping ability to a group of fellow soldiers. (Norwegians love to be outside, ideally with planks strapped to their feet. Some even claim that Norwegians are born with skis on—which makes me really glad I’m not a Norwegian mother.) After Rye’s jump, ski jumping became a popular event at winter carnivals throughout Norway, and by the early 1900s it had become all the rage in the United States, too.
The founders of the Norge Ski Center traveled around northern Illinois looking for the highest piece of land they could find. They bought one in Fox River Grove for $15, built a 150-foot-high hill and held their first national tournament in January 1912. That hill was replaced with the 200-foot-high jump (the same height as a 20-story building) in 2005. Today, the Annual Norge Ski Jumping Tournament, held each January, attracts more than 50,000 spectators. The club also has four smaller hills and is open year round. During non-winter months, skiers jump off plastic or ceramic jumps and land on plastic, artificial-snow mats from Finland. In 2012, former U.S. Ski Team member and coach Scott Smith, who started training at the Norge Ski Club when he was 6, became the first ski jumper from the area to be inducted into the American Ski Jumping Hall of Fame.
Including Norge Ski Club, there are 31 active ski jumping clubs around the United States. Interestingly enough, most of them are in the Midwest and the Northeast (home to a combined 25 clubs). There are only six ski jumping clubs west of the Rockies (including the home of the U.S. Ski Jumping Team in Park City, Utah). Perhaps Scandinavian immigrants were drawn to the upper Midwest because the cold, dark winters reminded them of home.
The goal of ski jumping sounds simple enough. Ski down a ramp. Jump. Land as far down the hill as you can. Live. Oh, and you also have to score points for style.
Techniques have changed dramatically in the past several decades. Before the turn of the century, the winner was the person who crash-landed in the snow farthest from the jump. Now, jumpers land in the telemark position—one leg in front of the other, with knees bent to serve as shock absorbers. Early jumpers also waved their arms wildly to keep aloft. In the 1950s, they held their hands out in front of them like Superman. By the ’80s, they were keeping them at their sides and their skis parallel. These days, thanks to the innovation of Swedish skier Jan Boklöv 25 years ago, they hold their feet in a “V,” which produces a longer glide.
It’s pretty impressive that one of the country’s best ski jumps is in suburban Illinois. That accomplishment is all the more inspiring when you learn that the club is, and always has been, run by volunteers (who help beginning jumpers carry their skis up the stairs).
So if you’ve always wanted to try ski jumping, grab your family and friends and head to the Midwest. Your Equinox’s Multi-Flex Sliding Rear Seat features a 60/40 split-fold design to easily make room for passengers, ski cargo or both.
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Robin Cherry is a Hudson Valley-based travel and food writer. Her first book was Catalog: The Illustrated History of Mail-Order Shopping. Her second, forthcoming this year, is on the history of garlic.