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The U.S. Ski Team’s Tom Kelly spent his career telling stories of skiers and snowboarders, serving at 10 Olympics and being in the finish area for 75 Olympic medals. But his roots stem back to ski jumping and the legendary Blackhawk Ski Club near his hometown of Madison, Wis. In 2018 Tom was inducted into the US Ski & Snowboarding Hall of Fame- click here to see USS&SHoF bio and tribute video.
Madison, WI/Park City UT
When you think about your passion, most of us should be able to track it back to a single defining moment. For me, it was February, 1960 when I discovered skiing. I was just seven years old, growing up on the east side of Madison, Wisconsin. I can pinpoint both that moment in time when I first met the sport, as well as the place that really ignited my lifelong endeavor.
It was Thursday, February 18, 1960. I was home from school with some communicable disease. Mom needed to run to the store and had no one to watch me. She took a chance and left me alone. As a rambunctious, exploring kind of young boy, that was a leap of faith for mom.
“Sit on the sofa and don’t move,” she told me. Then she switched on the television, turning to live coverage from the Squaw Valley Olympics. “I thought, maybe that would help keep you in place,” she recalled.
Televising of the Olympics was in its infancy. The Rome Games that next summer would be the first ever broadcast globally. Squaw Valley was unique in that it was the first time the Olympic organizers had sold actual broadcast rights, with CBS carrying the Games across America.
My initial memory of skiing is watching Penny Pitou win a silver medal in the downhill. I was totally hooked. This sport where you slid down the snow on a piece of wood or plastic captured something inside me. But I didn’t know what to do with it!
We knew no one who skied, nor did we have any idea how to go about it. But mom and dad were aware of the ski jump west of Middleton. So every January, they would pack us three kids and themselves into our Chevrolet and make the 40 minute drive to the Blackhawk Ski Club.
“It was just the perfect family entertainment,” said mom, now 90. “And it was free.”
The late 1950s and early 1960s formed a glory era of ski jumping in the Midwest. Hundreds and hundreds of cars would pack the frozen tundra at the base of the Blackhawk jump in the sub-freezing January temperatures. Mom would pack lunches and hot drinks. Dad was at the wheel. I would fight with my younger sisters for position in the back seat.
We would always have a clear line of sight to the jump, watching athletes soar silently through the air off Tomahawk Ridge. I remember the dead quiet. We were too far to hear the sound of wind against the jumpers’ suits. But I can vividly recall the SMACK as their skis met the snow. And with every long ride came the din of blaring car horns signalling their appreciation in the frigid winter air.
My love affair with the Blackhawk Ski Club grew each year. Somewhere around age 12 I picked up another passion – photography. Over time, I found ways to combine my interest in photography with skiing. By high school, I was a regular at the ski jump, photographing training sessions and meeting those daredevil athletes I had seen as a kid from the back seat of our Chevrolet. Now I was up close and personal, climbing the hill and the free-standing scaffold.
I began to learn about sport and how ski jumpers trained to be better at their craft. It was a period of great evolution in the sport and Blackhawk was very much at the center of it.
“During my era of ski jumping, we struggled to find snow conditions to get enough practice jumps,” recalled Blackhawk jumper Bill Bakke today. “We would go to the Olympics or World Championships with about 200 jumps in our legs, competing against those who had multiples of that.”
Blackhawk jumpers like Bakke and teammate Dave Norby were looking for ways to get a bit of an advantage. “Our home club had a moderate sized and not progressively designed ski jump,” Bakke said. ”But with snowmaking and night lighting we were able to ski more than many of our American competitors.”
They also relied on fitness, transitioning from the traditional strength training to more work with plyometrics. Bakke recalls studying writings of University of Tennessee track coach Fred Wilt along with gleanings from talks with East German ski jumpers.
The late 1960s were a pivotal period for the Blackhawk Ski Club. Led by an energetic club secretary and former ski jumper, Stan DuRose, the club began to grow its facilities. DuRose went to West Germany in 1966 to gather ideas. He came back and organized a volunteer effort to build a 25 meter jump in 1967, spending $9,000 to import unique plastic mats from then West Germany to cover the takeoff and landing.
“Blackhawk was the western hemisphere leader in plastic mat ski jumping,” said Norby, who went on to coach at the club. “Others tried various materials but Blackhawk was the first successful one.”
The small jump was an outstanding tool for junior jumpers. But it was still not as impactful for the top athletes who were competing against Europeans who had year-round training. The East Germans had initiated plastic training in the 1950s. Austria couldn’t afford the plastic jumps, but could easily travel to Germany. Norway and Finland at first ignored summer training, feeling ski jumping should be a winter sport.
Nonetheless, it was an exhilarating time for ski jumping in the Madison area. It was headlines in the Wisconsin State Journal in 1968 when the Blackhawk Ski Club sent local jumpers Bakke and Norby to the Olympics in Grenoble (Blackhawk would later send hometown hero Kurt Stein to the 1992 and 1994 Games).
It was also the start of a pathway that would make the Blackhawk Ski Club the center of ski jumping in America. The U.S. Ski Team started to eye Blackhawk for summer training. Moving into coaching roles, Bakke and Norby joined the efforts to bring plastic to the bigger hill at Blackhawk.
But German plastic mats were simply too expensive for a small club like Blackhawk to use on its larger hill. There was a Czech alternative produced in Fresntat, home of legendary ski jumper Jiri Raska who consulted on the product. But in 1972, with the Cold War still firmly in place, it was politically impossible to import the mats to America.
The club then turned to the machine tool industry in Wisconsin, but was frustrated with the response. It was just too small an order to invest in the tooling. Still, the Blackhawk officials persisted and were able to get plastic on the 60m hill.
“Moving the perception from novelty to necessity was a slow process,” said Bakke. “
A few years later, the club borrowed $25,000 to rebuild its primary 60m jump with plastic. On Oct. 20-21, 1973, it held the first All-American Mattenspringen Tournament. And it became the pre-season home for some of the top jumpers in America.
National team jumper Greg Windsperger recalls those early camps at Blackhawk organized by a succession of coaches including Gene Kotlarek, Snowball Severud and Ed Brisson. During the formal camps, jumpers would stay at the University of Wisconsin dormitories. On their own, they would come down outside of official training sessions and just camp out with sleeping bags under the jumping tower. “It was fun,” he recalled.
No one had any real knowledge of jumping on plastic from the inrun that had no track to the landing hill that was an inconsistent surface. They learned quickly to keep the plastic moist and to watch for spots where the sun would dry it more quickly, creating sticky spots. “It was reasonably representative of skiing on snow,” said Windsperger.
‘Winnie” also recalled in the late ‘70s a young speed skater from Madison training by running up and down the ski jump stairs. It was Eric Heiden, who would go on to win five gold medals in Lake Placid a few years later.
“To me, the Blackhawk Ski Club, and especially Stan DuRose, really moved the sport of ski jumping forward in those years,” Windsperger said. “The club took a financial leap to provide all of us the opportunity the rest of the world had.
As an enterprising photographer in high school and later college, I got my first real break when U.S. Ski Team jumping coach Gene Kotlarek was looking for someone to do a team photo. Bakke let him know that I was the guy. I was hired. And I took great pride in taking the annual team photo and headshots of the ski jumping stars.
I had no background in the sport and knew nothing of sport protocols. I was a journalist then. So I never thought twice about holding my Nikon F with a 24mm lens right out on the plastic as jumpers would approach. My 1974 photo of Greg Windsperger pushing out of the start remains one of my favorite cover shots – gracing the printed pages of Ski Racing Magazine.
A few times, well, I got into trouble. DuRose, who doubled as the competition PA announcer, used to chastise me by name over the loudspeakers … albeit in a nice way. “Tom Kelly, can you please come down from the scaffold?”
I met great athletes and coaches in the 70s at Blackhawk, many of whom have remained lifelong friends. Jack Turner, who was then the Colorado University ski jumping coach, brought three athletes one year and was fascinated watching me process black and white images in my darkroom. Ron Steele, a young ski jumper from Washington state, went on to run Rossignol and is still a dear friend.
I began to really love photographing ski jumping. And I did it in what I consider to be a very unique manner. I traveled around to other jumps, such as the towering scaffold at Westby, Wis. and the historic jumps at Suicide Hill in Ishpeming, Mich. I remember a rainy weekend at Iron Mountain, Michigan’s Pine Mountain jump where I combined photographing the ski jump with some alpine skiing – all while wearing a plastic garbage bag.
My time at Copper Peak near Ironwood, Mich. helped me respect the sport even more, watching the boys fly down that towering hill. It was even scarier to photograph from the start house at the top of the scaffold, free swaying in the wind as I looked out at Lake Superior.
As photographers, we used to dig foxholes into the steep landing hill – four to five feet deep. A friend and fellow photographer from the Milwaukee Journal once fell down the entire landing hill. He landed in the hospital.
My career has led me down a pathway of unspeakable excitement and opportunity. It’s taken me to 10 Olympics and put me in the finish area for 75 Olympic medals. From that moment in February, 1960, I was able to forge a pathway doing something I truly loved – and still do today. My ski jumping experience in Wisconsin connected me with the U.S. Ski Team. I doubled up that connection with a job as PR director for Telemark in the early days of the American Birkebeiner and the first-ever FIS Cross Country World Cup, won by American Allison Owen-Spencer. That eventually led to my working for the U.S. Ski Association and spending the rest of my career with U.S. Ski & Snowboard.
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Thank you Tom Kelly for all of your time and dedication to the world of sports. You are a favorite of the athletes and of the spectators. You have given us a voice, a view and a perspective for many years. TK you are a one of a kind and Thank you