Chicago’s rich history owes much to the variety of ethnic groups that have settled the area over the past 175 years. While some groups contributed their food or traditions to Chicago’s culture, the Norwegians who have lived here since the early days made themselves feel at home by flying over 200 feet in the air with boards strapped to their feet. They brought with them that exhilarating Norwegian invention, the original extreme sport of ski jumping.
It’s been here over a hundred years, but most Chicagoans haven’t heard of the Norge Ski Club, 40 miles northwest of Chicago in Fox River Grove, Illinois. “The Norwegians still had a passion for skiing as they did in their native country,” Gene Brown, a Norge Ski Club board member and past president whose son AJ is currently training in the sport in Park City, Utah, says. “Chicago is obviously not known for hills, and when they found the highest point in McHenry County, it was their opportunity.” In 1905 they built a jump, assembled a group of sleeping huts and spent their winter weekends drinking glögg and catching air.
Amid a few smaller training jumps, the big jump at Norge (pronounced “NOR guee”) is a 70 meter ramp, known as a K70. The letter “K” refers to the “critical landing point,” a line that marks the minimum distance competitors are expected to reach. Distance points are awarded for every meter exceeding this point, and deducted for falling short. A final score also includes style points awarded by judges.
There are three Olympic ski jump events: Normal Hill Individual (K90), Large Hill Individual (K120) and Large Hill Team. Individual skiers get one training jump and two scored jumps, which combine to determine the individual’s final score. In the team event, scores of all team members (two jumps each) are combined for a team score. If flying solo off a slippery 120 meter ramp isn’t scary enough for you, the World Cup competitions (as sanctioned by the International Ski Federation (FIS)) also include a nerve testing K185 event, a jump so high it is no longer considered ski jumping, but instead is called ski flying.
A Midwest ski jump is a rare thing, and a ski jump Olympian from Norge is even rarer. In fact, there’s never been one. The first time Norge Ski Club came close to seeing one of its own compete for Olympic glory was current Team Norge coach Scott Smith, who nearly made the team in 1988 but came up short. It was Smith who first coached the current Olympic hopeful from Norge, 24-year-old Michael Glasder from Cary. Glasder began training at Norge 20 years ago and is currently on the USA Ski Jumping National Team. Qualifying for spots on the 2014 Winter Olympic Ski Jump Team wraps up in January, so Chicagoans will soon know if they will be cheering on a local in the Olympic ski jump events in Sochi.
Norge is well known in ski jump circles for its vigorous training program. Central to the program are five ski jumps of various sizes: 5 meter, 10 meter, 25 meter and 40 meter, with the ultimate one being of course the K70, which is regarded as the best 70 meter hill in the country. Recently refurbished in 2005, it’s the one that draws the crowds.
Brown encourages people who have only seen ski jumping on television to see it in person at Norge. “It’s so three dimensional, you’re so close and it’s so gravity defying,” he says. “When they come off the jump, you can hear the wind come off their body. Think of when you put your hand out the window when the car is going about 50 miles per hour, and the larger jumps it’s more, maybe 55 or 60 miles per hour.”
Another factor he impresses that cannot be appreciated on television is the crowd. “It’s like going to a concert, with a family atmosphere,” Brown says. “[You] can go to socialize. It’s not just about skiing. There’s a social nature to it, and because you’re around others, you can sense the reaction of the crowd. You’re immersed in the moment of the experience. It truly encompasses all the senses.”
For those wishing to take Brown up on his recommendation, Norge Ski Club hosts an international ski jump tournament annually, and this year it takes place Jan. 25-26 (Junior National Qualifier and Competition on Saturday, K70 US Cup Five Hills Tournament and Long-Standing Competition on Sunday). Chicagoans wanting to be a part of the festivities can take Metra’s Union Pacific Northwest Line to the Fox River Grove Station, where a shuttle will whisk them away in a short ride to the ski hill.