Traverse Classics: Ski Jumping in the U.P.

Traverse Classics: At a ski jump competition in 1970, Vinko Bogataj, a Slovenian, executed what is perhaps the most famous wipeout in sports history. He fell as he sped down a ski jump takeoff ramp, careened off the end and sailed like a flailing rag doll into bystanders. The jump was caught on film, and producers of “Wide World of Sports,” ABC’s iconic Saturday television show, plugged the mishap into the show’s weekly opening sequence, accompanied by the words, “agony of defeat.” Bogataj wasn’t killed, but he looked as though he should have been [see the video]. Just ask any of the millions of moms and dads tuned in each week and thinking about choosing a sport for their children.

The image had such can’t-look-away pull that ABC never switched out the clip after they inserted it in the late 70’s, even though film that accompanied “the thrill of victory,” which preceded “the agony of defeat,” was updated regularly until the show’s end in 1997.

To the average American, all this is just pop culture who-knew, maybe good for a Trivial Pursuit answer some day. But in the two tiny towns, Ishpeming and Negaunee, that iron miners built a half-hour west of Marquette, some people say the clip of Bogataj was in part responsible for a dimming of their world. They believe that by frightening people about ski jumping, the scene helped steer American athlete families and fans away from a glorious sport that these communities once dominated on an international scale—one of the more unlikely sports dynasties in American history.

Amping up the feelings of injustice, ski jumping still reigns in Europe, where fans mob skiers like groupies chasing rock stars, and jumpers sign multi-million-dollar endorsement contracts. (Yooper ski jumpers speak enviously of a European who pocketed $6 million for putting a candy bar sticker on his helmet.) What’s more, other extreme sports are raging in U.S. popularity, yet Americans are ignoring what could be considered the original X-game.

Read about the Northern Michigan Olympians who participated in 2010’s Vancouver Olympics.

But devotees at the Ishpeming Ski Club are not giving up on their beloved sport. That comes as little surprise, given the club’s endurance record and proven mettle. Formed in 1887, this is the oldest ski club in the nation, and the club has more National Ski Hall of Fame inductees than any other organization. If any community can vanquish the specter of Bogataj’s fall and rekindle a culture of ski jumping, it’s this one—if not all across the nation, at least here in the western U.P.

To find where dreams of ski jumping are on display, one must head to a small valley of forest and rock named Suicide Bowl—the name itself not a PR win. The valley is strung with five ski jumps and lies between the two burgs of Ishpeming and Negaunee. Toward dusk on a Thursday last February, a dozen people scatter around preparing for ski jump practice. A couple of teen girls and boys head into equipment trailers to don their jump suits. Their dads grab aluminum rakes to groom the jump landing areas. A guy in worn Carhartt coveralls works on a ski binding with a socket wrench.

Then, amid the miscellany, a shout rises. “We have a new jumper here!” Everybody stops for a moment and looks down the short slope to the parking lot. The new jumper is Joe Malbasio.

Everybody gives a small cheer. “All right!” somebody yells, and there’s a muffled clapping of mittened hands. Parents and children watch him as he makes his way to the clubhouse to get gear. It turns out Malbasio’s grandpa was a ski jumper. So was his grandma. Will he be the one who carries the torch of the Ishpeming Ski Club into a bright new future? Hard to say, because after all, he’s never jumped in his life—he’s only 7 years old.

Kevin, the club coordinator, rummages through the gear collection to get Malbasio outfitted. A complete set of gear—helmet, jumpsuit, boots and skis—costs about $2,500, so the club buys it and provides it free to jumpers. For tonight, Malbasio just gets skis and a helmet, and the coordinator leads him toward the smallest jump. Suicide Bowl’s two big jumps are built as one might picture them, with scaffolding. But the smaller jumps just run down the hill to a takeoff ramp, not unlike what kids build on ski hills.

Malbasio’s not ready for even the smallest jump yet, though, so Kevin points him down the hill beside the jump and gives him a little push. After maybe 20 feet he tips over. It’s a humble beginning, but an early beginning, and that’s the important thing. The locally accepted fact is you have to begin jumping before you’re afraid of anything; about age 5 or 6 is best. Otherwise you might never be okay with going from 0 to 55 mph in four seconds, then rocketing off the end of a ramp and soaring 300 to 400 feet through the air on skis.

Adding poignancy to Malbasio’s first attempts and all the other activity this evening is the towering ski jump ramp that rises at the top of the ridge. Called the 90-meter, it’s the sky-high icon that gave Suicide Bowl its name and gave the local world champions and Olympians their own beginnings.

A light snow falls as darkness settles, and somebody turns on the white Christmas lights hung on the clubhouse eaves. The older jumpers, who range from 10 to 16, are ready for their practice. Long, wide skis propped over their shoulders, a half dozen kids walk in ones and twos across the parking lot and over to the jump. They wear helmets and foam jumpsuits in pastel hues of orange, pink and blue.

Meet Northern Michigan’s Shani Davis, winner of back-to-back golds in speed skating.

The suits are like one-piece wetsuits, but lighter, baggier and spongier. No chairlift or rope tow awaits to haul the kids to the top of the hill, so when they reach the slope, they head to a stairway – short cuts of railroad ties set into the hill—and march up. The four dads are now raking the landing area, the scrape and twang of aluminum tines dominates the sound-scape. The only illumination comes from a series of single-bulb lamps that runs down the ramp, one light about every 50 feet.

Dale Fredette, the loquacious 60-something coach and lifelong local, mans his position at the launch ramp. He’s dressed in classic Yooper fashion: calf-high leather boots, red and black checkered hunting pants, nylon jacket and knit hat. He smokes one cigarette after another. From his vantage point, the kids that sit in a row on a board at the top of the jump are featureless dark shapes.

Soon, a boy slides over to the starting spot, sits for a moment and then yells: “Clear?” The four men, now stationed at even intervals down the jump, take turns responding: “Clear!” The boy shifts off the board and immediately hunkers into that ski-jump monkey squat you see on TV. He stays loose and low as his speed builds to the launch. At the precise moment his ski tips cross into nothingness, Fredette yells, “Forward!”

The boy sails into the air, thrusting his chest and hips far forward, his skis forming a V, wide at the tips. There’s a brief whoosh as the skis cut the air, then a slap of skis against hard-packed snow as he lands the jump. He speeds to the bottom of the hill and hockey-stops at the straw bales. Shaking his head in disappointment, he yells up to the men on the hill, “It’s slow!” He shoulders his skis and walks to the stairs.

Now another boy jumps. And then a girl. And then another girl. Preceding each jumper, the call of “Clear!” moves like a wave down the hill. And after each lands, he or she complains that the hill is slow. But they still focus on technique. As 16-year-old Maria Honncola walks back up the stairs, she pauses in the darkness to speak to Fredette.

“How did I do? Did I keep my chin up?” she asks.

“Could you see your ski tips?” he says.

“Yah,” she says, the implication dawning. “I must have had my chin down.”

“Yep, you had your chin down,” he says. He laughs and takes a hit of his cigarette. She lets out a moan of disappointment and continues her march up the dimly lit hill.

The night goes on, and one kid after another shoots into the air. At one point, a boy named Adam takes off, and his right ski falls off in midair. He crashes and slides down the hill unhurt.

Adam’s fall illustrates why people here feel ski jumping is so much safer than the infamous clip of Bogataj’s fall suggests. Fredette says, “It’s not the fall that hurts you, it’s the sudden stop.” It sounds like a joke, but what he means is that the landing portion of the hill is slanted steeply and covered with hard packed snow. When a jumper falls he slides down the hill until eventually stopping.

“The snowboarders at school get hurt way more than we do,” Maria says. Still, she feels it takes more courage to ski jump, despite her perceived safety of the sport. “If a boarder went off this jump they’d crap their pants,” she says.

One regular at ski jump practice is Sten Fjeldheim, the nationally acclaimed cross-country ski coach from Northern Michigan University, a man who has sent several collegiate athletes to the Olympics. Fjeldheim is here because his son jumps in the club. “When you look at the odds of getting into the Olympics, how many kids are trying to get in playing hockey compared to ski jumping?” he says. Thousands and thousands and thousands of hockey players, maybe a few hundred ski jumpers. “If you want your kid to have an Olympics experience, that is really something to think about.”

Around the valley, people still talk about Rhys Hecox, a Marquette teen who skied on the U.S. Ski Team back in 2000. “He was out-jumping everybody,” Fredette says. Hecox even won the Continental Cup in Finland, but then he quit. “An Austrian told me some people expected him to be the best in the world,” Fredette says wistfully. Clearly it still hurts to think how close the return of Ishpeming’s ski jump glory was. Fredette blames Hecox’s resignation on politics within the U.S. Ski Team.

The kids in Ishpeming’s program these days are pretty green, recent recruits from a campaign to build up from a membership low a few years ago. The iron mine that owns the valley was going to fill it in with waste rock. People began to feel there was no future with the sport. But then mine officials changed their minds, and now people talk of investment in the big jump, bringing it up to revised world class standards. They also are installing summer jump technology: on the jump, a dimpled metal surface that water runs over; on the landing area, a specialized plastic mat. As testament to how close to burial the club’s valley, history and culture was, just a few hundred yards east of where the kids jump, a wall of mining waste rock rises 30 stories, and the valley beyond is no longer a valley.

Dale Fredette knows what it means to have ski jump heroes propel a young jumper’s dreams of glory. In 1949 he was listening to a radio broadcast of a ski jump competition in Iron Mountain, and heard that a 24-year-old Ishpeming man named Joe Perrault had just beat the best skiers in the world. “I was a young boy, but I knew right then I wanted to be a ski jumper,” he says.

He would ski to school and prop his boards outside all day, then after school he’d head to small jumps he knew of around town. Back in the first half of the 1900’s, Ishpeming and Negaunee had ski jumps all over the place. People built them on any hill they could find, piled snow against garages and skied off the roofs; some people even built scaffold jumps. Back then, when people said “skiing” they meant one thing: Ski jumping.

Fredette’s uncle told him, “Once you take your first ride down the big hill, you’ll run up for your second,” and the thought stayed with him. By the time Fredette was 10 he felt ready for the big jump, but when he asked his mom, she said no.

The next winter, at age 11, he became the second-youngest person to jump Suicide Bowl’s most extreme hill, but the risk he didn’t take was asking for permission. “When I went home and told my mom she got mad and wanted my dad to hit me,” he says. “But my dad just looked at me and said, ‘What do you mean? He’s all right.'”

And as Fredette moved through his teens, his local heroes didn’t disappoint. “In ’48 we had two guys on the Olympic team. In ’52 we had two, ’56 we had one, and in ’60 we had three more.” Other local Olympians had come before, more came later – 13 all together. But no local has competed since 1980 – a 28-year drought.

Fredette made it to the top amateur league, but not the Olympics, and toured the nation for the Ishpeming Ski Club. And ski jumping was still “the big thing in my life,” he says. He worked construction and took winters off so he could ski jump. “I couldn’t count the number of times I did the big jump,” he says. “But it was 25 times a day every day I could, and I did that for 40 years.” In all the years he jumped the big hill, Fredette’s mom never once watched him.

Not many people can head downtown and have coffee with their heroes, but Dale Fredette can. Every Friday morning, ski jumpers from the glory days meet amid the bacon-pancake-coffee aroma of Meg’s Place in Ishpeming to share breakfast and keep the flame alive. And Friday, February 22, finds them there at 9 a.m. Clarence “Coy” Hill, now 80, won the National Class A championship in ’52 and competed around the globe. Joe Perrault, now 83, was selected for the ’48 and ’52 Olympics; he was named the Michigan Daredevil. Other jumpers with victories of their own populate the place.

Perrault is the most medaled of the group, but he wears his pride quietly. Like Fredette, he grew up in the ski jump world of Ishpeming, and today lives just three doors from his childhood house.

In 1944, 19-year-old Perrault got a taste of big city fame. He was in the Army’s division of fighting skiers, the 10th Mountain Division (he wears a pin on his green corduroy hat this morning that bears the division name and the words “Viva Italia”), when the Chicago’s mayor office called his commanding officer and asked if any of the soldiers could ski jump. The city was constructing a jump in Wrigley Field and was holding a tournament on crushed ice.

Even though Perrault was selected for two Olympics, the jump he remembers with the most pride happened at Iron Mountain in 1949, when he beat the reigning gold medalist from the 1948 Olympics, a Finn whom he calls “a prince of a guy.”

Perrault’s jumping success ended dramatically with a bad landing when training for the ’52 Olympics. “All summer when I’d walk with my wife, when I’d come to a curb, I’d practice my landing,” he says. He’d jump off the curb and plant his feet on the street, bend his knees, get the form. But that winter in Wisconsin, despite the obsessing, he messed up a landing in a bad way. He fell, crushing some vertebrae and cracking some ribs. He recovered and even jumped again for a couple of years, but then quit for good.

Why are fewer people drawn to ski jumping in the United States these days? “For years now they’ve been sending jumpers to Europe to train. They’re not at the U.S. hills for people to see,” Perrault says. In short, no local heroes to inspire youth.

Many of the goings on at Suicide Bowl this week are part of the routine: practice every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday; daily maintenance and hill grooming to keep the hills ready. But there’s an added element of excitement in the background, preparations for the annual season-crowning ski jump competition.

The 2007 event was the 120th consecutive – the first was held in 1887. During the glory years of the Ishpeming Ski Club, 100 jumpers from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, New York and even Colorado, would compete, but this year the only club to show is from Chicago. Ten high-school-aged jumpers – some Olympic contenders – and their coach arrive in a white van. None of the Ishpeming jumpers are yet accomplished enough to compete.

But the thin competition does nothing to ease the attention given to the event. For days the hill maintenance chief, Tom Sodergren, has been smoothing the 90-meter hill like a maid making a bed in a fine hotel. Time after time he heads to the top of the landing area on his skis and, carrying a rake, moves back and forth across the face compressing every bit of snow into hard-pack.

On Friday afternoon a team of men led by Coy Hill heads to the jump ramp to etch tracks into the ice-hard snow, tracks that will guide jumpers’ skis as they hurtle to the takeoff. The men cut the track with a tool that Sodergren invented and that’s been copied worldwide. The tracks must be 1.5 inches deep and 7 inches between the trails. The ramp at takeoff declines exactly 11 degrees below horizontal – measured on the readout of a digital level.

Saturday night, the cars stream in. A man with a hat made of fox pelts, multiple fox heads dangling, takes tickets. The parking lot fills with tailgate parties – country western music from SUVs, chili and Labatt beer all around. A bonfire rages 15 feet high.

Darkness arrives as start time nears, and Coy Hill stands beside the launch ramp, illuminated by the blue-green glow of vapor lights. His big coat drapes to mid-thigh, but is unzipped despite the 15-degree weather. He’s thinking about his time jumping and about the boys jumping tonight. “In school, when I’d see that first snowflake in September, I’d go crazy because I couldn’t wait to get on that hill and fly through the air like a bird,” he says.

What about advice for today’s jumpers? “When you meet that takeoff, you make that hill yours,” he says. “You get on that big cushion of air and ride it.” Hill thinks for a moment. “I was known in places all over the world,” he says. “That’s what this hill did for me, and that’s why I’ve been in this valley for 65 years giving back.”

Hundreds of spectators line both sides of the landing area and cluster at the hill bottom. After the national anthem and a firework, the jumpers begin, and though there are only 10 of them, the thrill of ski jumping is no less electrifying. The anticipation as the start-light flashes green and the skier begins his ride. The rattle of ski against ice as he speeds down the ramp. The moment of launch, the whoosh of air, the thrill of seeing a human fly.

And there’s side drama too. After skier No. 2 jumps, announcer Carl Pelonpaa tells the crowd that the young man jumps with an artificial leg. A moment of silence settles as each person takes in this almost unbelievable fact, and then a giant cheer rises.

The jumpers each jump three times, and with each landing people honk horns, ring cow bells, scream and clap. Taking it all in high on the hill is Maria, the Ishpeming jumper who was concentrating on keeping her chin up Thursday night. Another jumper flies by, and Maria’s eyes track him as he sails down the hill. “I’m gonna jump this hill at least once,” she says. “And if I jump it once and don’t fall, I will jump it at least twice, because I know I’ll want to do it again.”

Call it the thrill of victory.

This article was first published in February 2008.

For over 30 years the staff at Traverse Magazine has written about the history and natural world of our region. For the web series, Traverse Classics, we’ve reached into our archives to bring our favorites to our MyNorth audience.


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Article Comments

  • Anonymous

    The magazine article indicated this site to see Vinko Bogataj’s “agony of defeat” video, but I have not be able to find it. Where is it?

  • Anonymous

    Apologies for the oversight. We’ve now added a link in the opening paragraph, or you can go to: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nPk_IZ44DMc. — Jeff Smith, Editor