STRETCHING THE ENVELOPE. JOHN BENZIE TRIED EVERYTHING (AT LEAST) ONCE. Shown here on scoop tip Fischers in the late ’70’s.
Iron Mt., MI
This incredible journey started out at age 12 on Christmas Day in the basement of my parents’ house in one of the most prestigious ski jumping communities of its time. I watched as former Olympic jumper Butch Wedin, dad (Charlie Benzie), and uncle (Dickie Bird Anderson, hill captain of Pine Mountain) put some bindings on a pair of Butch’s Northland jumping skis which had arrived 7’6” instead of 8’6”. At the time ski jumping was a big part of the Central division with active ski jumps in many little towns and back yards. Well, after a nice dinner and with a few bottles of holiday spirits down, the adults told me to put my snowmobile suit on because we were going to the Myron Bowl to learn how to ski jump. So picture me in this bulky suit wearing an old pair of Butch’s boots with toes stuffed full of toilet paper so they would be a tighter fit. Arriving at the hill everyone was feeding me instructions like there was nothing to it. I had never snow skied in my life but was a good water skier so they all said I should have no problems. What the hell were they thinking???
I stood on top of this 30 meter scaffold with all these elders shouting out things to do and to each response gave excuse after excuse of what was wrong with my equipment. Finally Uncle Dickie said I had 5 minutes before he came up and threw me down the jump. With that the fear of god took over, do it on my terms or get pushed down the hill. I was off and after hitting the first light bulb with my head because I was standing straight up, bent down into an in-run position to miss the rest of them. I never got out of the tuck position and flew like a rock, landing hard and going to my rear end for the rest of the ride. Knees shaking and barely able to stand after coming to a stop in the outrun I could hear them all laughing and yelling for me to clean out my underwear and get back up there to take another jump. Now that is some great coaching!!!
Three years later I was jumping off Pine Mountain at age 15 in a homemade jump suit and sweater. No helmet, no googles and hand-me-down low back boots that did not need toilet paper in the toes. At this time big names like John Balfanz, Jerry and Jay Martin, Greg Swor, Adrian Watt, Dave Hicks, Tom Dargay, Coy Hill and many others put me in total amazement. Through the years in this era of my career we experimented in all areas of equipment: homemade spoilers on boots from Dave Tomten; webbed gloves, materials sewn under our arms and between our legs for kite effects. Rubber suits with holes in front and plastic in back to act like a parachute in the air. Fischers with scoops in the tips and with scoops; Kono’s Elans with “wang” tips; and Kneissl’s with extra-long white star tails were all fair game and we tried them all. Broken skis were common on the hills which were often ramshackle affairs with steep in-runs, elevator shaft landings, and rotted stairs covered over with cardboard. Roy Weaver always won the event of mismatched skis. Suicide Hill in Ishpeming was a classic example with a huge bump in the in-run where the scaffold met the table. The fun part was making sure you jumped over the mine hole just below the end of the takeoff or end up in China. Good times.
Not ever realizing this could change my life I ended up at NMU with Greg Windsperger as coach. Still not truly focused on the sport and living life as Bonzi or Black Berry, Winnie had a real challenge turning me into a dedicated athlete. Many thanks to him for sticking to his guns and pushing me to higher levels. So many great times the NMU Finns including Jryki,Perti, Norgie (Bernt Rognstad], Jimmie Joe Grahek, Rass, Erkila and other teammates I will never forget.
On to the national and international circuit, ending up in Austria for the first time was a true eye opener to see how the big guns lived. I remember the first night I met Nils Stolzlechner,a dual citizen (USA/AUS) living in Austria. We began a long term friendship even when I was traveling with the A team of Hupo (Hupert Neuper LH silver 1980),Toni Innauer (NH gold 1980, LH silver 1976), Klaus Tuchscherer, Alois Lipburger, Fritz Koch, Hans Wallner. I must say on and off the hills competition was fierce during training periods. This was 1979 before the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics and during a heated volleyball game Toni got under my skin and I leg swiped him dropping him like a bad habit and spraining his ankle. Needless to say I was sent home shortly after but the injury did not stop Toni from winning a gold medal in 1980. My other trips overseas summer and winters included the two Crawdads (Greg and Gary Crawford), Pierre (Landis Arnold) Gaboury brothers, Deadwood Dave and included some broken arms and wrists.
Back in the states I traveled the country from hill to hill and meet to meet in my Caddie with all who dared to jump on board. It was a fun ride and I’m glad to be alive.
The first wind tunnel experience in New York hooking up to ole school harness was a real fun time also. To all who Davis and I hazed on and off the hills I apologize. Especially you Lubi (Scott Lubansky), as we really tried to mess you up. You were one of the toughest kids we came across. What we did to your skis and bindings in the box on tops of each hill was hard core. Putting human icicles on them was harsh.
Coming back to Big Thunder Bay where the flying Canadians and I hit it off quite well. Stevie (Collins), Tiger Tom (Thompson), Horst (Bulau), Servie Dog (Jon Servold), Roger, Tim still to this day keep in touch and the parties we had at the banquets always included friends from the local college. Also to all who knew Stevie Collins and what he did on pair of skis was unheard of including the full 360 on jumping skis off the makeshift jump over the top of the warming shack that was just under the scaffold of the large hill in T-Bay. Nailed it every time. The Chicago team was a big hit here too as the Sky Lords made a splash with their rendition of the Super Bowl Bears ski songs with Homala , Smittie, and all the others. This is where my friendship with the eastern boys came to play. Bob Sachs, Big Jeff Volmrich, Stinger, Holland and few others who you all know who you are. My last coach and slave driver was Ed Brisson whose voice no MN jumper will ever forget. ”Benzie you and Chuck Burtelson come out of the top. I want to see how fast this hill is.” Sometimes if the snow was slow he had us sling-shot each other out of the top, and in Steamboat one day put a picnic table up there for us to jump off of for more speed. Even at Copper Peak he had us come from top gate. Our motto was whatever Ed wants, Ed gets. He never had a speed gun he just stood next to the end of takeoff when you went by with no track laughing at us when we were launched out into the air like a rocket. This guinea pig job was later turned over to Mike ”Wiener” Shupien and Ron Hansen.
So many people, so many friends (Terry “Zoid” Kern, Steve Haik, John “Peanut M&M”, Scott “Tab Pop” Lubi, Jim, Jeff, John Denney the Ballet Boys, Chris “Mountain Man” McNeill, Wade “Nutter” Cattell, Reed “Thunder Thighs” Zuehlke, Gene “Mean Gene the Dancing Machine” Burmeister, on and on) came from the sport and so many success stories from all my ski jumping family. It seems this sport as a whole has made me who I am today. Retired and enjoying life would not have happened without it. I want to thank you all and congratulate everyone I’ve crossed paths with.
Finally, to all you young jumpers do not take any day on jumping hills for granted as one day you will all be writing stories for Hastings speaking of your road to retirement.