Ski jumping has evolved over the years. The equipment has improved at a rapid pace allowing for further jumps and safer flights. Jumps are updated regularly, looking like modern works of art cut into hillsides. There is one place in the world though, where ski jumping seems to have maintained its roots – the American Midwest.
Ski jumps are scattered across the Midwest in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, and Illinois. The towers groan with famed wind gusts. These scaffold towers have lived through our country’s greatest triumphs and tragedies – monuments of sorts. In fact, these towers will probably outlive us. Every year these monuments are honored with a ski jumping tournament. Some of these tournaments date back to the 1800’s making them among America’s oldest sporting events.
Young ski jumpers shake with nerves while gazing up at the hill, unsure if they are worthy for the gusty conditions. The hill crew rakes the landing hill and sweeps the track, many proudly donning Green Bay Packers or Minnesota Vikings hats. Ads have been playing on the local radio station and thousands of pins have been pre-purchased at local retailers around town, it’s Tournament night.
For some of these Midwest ski jumps, one night a year is all they will get. The entire town will flock into the arena, proudly wearing their buttons on the outside of warm jackets. Some gather around huge funeral pier bonfires, others sit in their running trucks- honking horns after a long ride. The concession stands serve local cuisine: bratwurst, pasties, and of course- ice cold beer.
Ski lifts aren’t prevalent in these parts. Instead, the athletes stick their skis in pickup trucks and are driven to the takeoff – an economical mode of transportation. From the takeoff, the athletes hoist long skis onto shoulders and scale the scaffolding on icy wooden steps. Then they soar.
Every competition ends with one round of longest standing- a self explanatory game. Whoever jumps the furthest without crashing wins. To many, this seems reckless or maybe not worth the risk. Especially in a society today that seems to obsess over safety. The athletes who take part though, they savor every moment of flight and every applause, because at the end of the day – it’s all about putting on a show. A hat passes through the crowd, green bills of all sizes get tossed in to reward the champion. The true definition of an invested crowd.
A champion is celebrated and the handsome purse is awarded. Fans cheer and horns are honked. Then just as quickly as the thousands of people appeared, they disappear into the night.
The dirt parking lot empties, minus a few cars. Lingering are the people behind the scenes- the coaches, event coordinators, judges, hill markers, and hill crew. These are just fancy names for what these people really are, ski jumpers. Most don’t jump anymore as it isn’t an old man’s game- but they did once, and that’s all that matters. In this sense, maybe ski jumping is a lifetime sport.
As the equipment on the hill is disassembled, there is chatter of what went well and what to improve upon next year. At some point, the discussion shifts and past stories are told. The ski jump, still awake and sparkling under the lights, listens to these stories and smiles. For a second the lights seem to brighten upon this monument. Then the breaker gets pulled and a dark cloth falls over the hillside. This monument goes to sleep – until next year.
Written by: Ben Berend