Annual Tournament Combines Big-time Competition with Down-home Fun
If you’re looking for some winter excitement of Olympic proportions, head to Westby in southwest Wisconsin for the 101st annual Snowflake Ski Jumping Tournament on February 2 and 3. At this impressive ski jump complex, located in a beautiful valley of the Timber Coulee Region on Vernon Electric Cooperative’s lines, you’ll see elite national and international ski jumpers fly through the air from one of only six 118-meter, Olympic-sized hills in North America. You’ll also see youth jumpers—some only a few years removed from their first baby steps—competing on the five adjacent smaller hills.
“This is your chance to see Winter Olympic-style ski jumping with ski jumpers from all over the world,” said Scott Yttri, a member of the all-volunteer Snowflake Ski Club that puts on this huge event. “We also have small jumps here for kids to start when they can barely stand sometimes, and what’s interesting is we’ll see young skiers compete here on the small hills, and then 10 to 12 years later they’ve worked their way up to the big hill and are trying to get on the Olympic team.”
While the Olympics are a lofty goal, they’re certainly not unattainable for a dedicated Snowflake jumper. Many Olympic and world-class ski jumpers have competed at the Snowflake Ski Jumping Tournament; the club itself has had plenty of members reach national-level competition. There’s even an Olympian among the club’s storied alums: Lyle Swenson, who captained the American ski-jumping team at the 1964 Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, and was later inducted into the American Ski Jumping Hall of Fame.
No question, there’s an aura of greatness to the Snowflake Ski Jumping Tournament, but that’s not the event’s only appeal. The competition is worldly, but the fun has a decidedly down-home feel. The event kicks off on a Friday night with competition on the big hill under the lights. Spectators stay warm around a big bonfire; feast on hardy food like brats, pork sandwiches, and ribeye steak sandwiches; and perhaps enjoy a beer or an old-fashioned along with some laughs and conversation.
“Friday night’s kind of the big party,” explained Matt Keuler, another Snowflake Ski Club member and coach of the junior ski-jumping team. “It’s a good old Wisconsin tailgating atmosphere, with the camaraderie and people just going out and having a good time.”
The fun continues on Saturday with the junior tournament held in the morning before competition on the big hill gets underway.
“On Saturday, it’s about bringing all these ski people together and giving them an opportunity to see what the kids are doing, and letting the kids jump in front of crowds,” he added.
By the end of the tournament, even spectators with no prior experience with—or knowledge of—ski jumping can consider themselves “ski people.” Keuler is the tournament’s public announcer. As a former competitor himself as well as a certified judge who travels through the United States and Europe for competitions, he has a lot of insight to share, and he helps the audience understand what they’re seeing.
“I try to really make it fun for the spectators because I look at it from their perspective,” he said. “I try to make sure they see the things that are important. My job is to know the skiers and make sure the crowd knows a little bit about them. And because I do know the skiers fairly well I can make it more fun.”
The welcoming nature of the tight-knit ski-jumping community, not to mention the warm embrace of the host city, also help make first-time attendees feel at home. Keuler pointed out that many people who come to the tournament for the first time end up coming back, year after year. “It’s kid-friendly, it’s adult-friendly,” he said. “It’s just a great time.”
Opportunities for Junior Jumpers
Westby’s ski-jumping tradition has endured for generations thanks in large part to the Snowflake Ski Club’s active youth program. The Snowflake complex includes four smaller hills—5, 10, 20, and 30 meters. Club members have access to these hills, as well as equipment to give the sport a try and help from experienced coaches. The club also has a competitive junior team that is part of a division including about a dozen teams from Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota, and Michigan. Top jumpers in the division earn points to qualify for junior nationals.
While Snowflake’s junior jumpers can train year-round, they can only practice actual jumping when there’s adequate snow unless they travel to a facility that has plastic sheeting for the hills. The Snowflake complex is among the few remaining ski hills that has no such plastic sheeting, said club member Kathy Frydenlund.
To rectify this disadvantage, the club formed a partner 503 c(3) charitable organization, Friends of Snowflake Ski Jumping, Inc. The Friends group recently launched Operation Plastic Matting, an effort to raise $200,000 to add plastic matting to the Snowflake complex’s four smaller hills.
“We have a long tradition of ski jumping in Westby—a strong, Nordic tradition,” said Frydenlund. “We’ve had an Olympian and we’ve had many athletes who have competed nationally. We think we could double our program if the juniors could train year-round, and we could develop more ski jumpers to compete nationally.”
Frydenlund said any interested children ages 5 to 13 are welcome to give ski jumping a try and join the junior program. To learn more, and/or to donate to Operation Plastic Matting, visit snowflakeskiclub.com and click the JOIN NOW button, or call Kathy at 608-632-4709.
A Community’s Heritage
It might seem surprising that a city of Westby’s size—population 2,350, as of the last census—has been successfully hosting an internationally significant sporting event for 100 years. However, a stroll through the streets of Westby reveals how much the tournament—and ski jumping in general—means to the community.
Westby’s proud Norwegian heritage is evident everywhere in the city, from the rosemaling décor on buildings to the Norwegian flags flying outside of homes to the menu in the local café. The community was settled in 1848 by Norwegian immigrants who were drawn to the familiar-looking hills, where they practiced the ski-jumping traditions of their homeland. They formed the all-volunteer Westby Ski Club in 1922, holding their first ski-jumping tournament a year later.
All these years later, the club is still going strong, with a membership base of over 500. These dedicated members maintain the jumps, run the Snowflake tournament and other competitions, and nurture their ski-jumping heritage by offering ski-jumping programs for youth. Some of today’s members are descendants of the club’s founders; Yttri, who is a Vernon Electric member himself and son of Vernon Electric board member Ole Yttri, is the fourth generation of his family to work the hills as a Snowflake Ski Club member.
“It kind of gets passed down,” Yttri said. “Kids start hanging out with their dads and their uncles, and then when we all start getting slower the next generation takes over.”
However, it takes a whole community to contribute to the success of an international sporting competition, and Westby steps up, club member or not. Meeting the lodging needs for the influx of competitors and guests on tournament weekends can be challenging for a small community, but residents help out.
“Local people will open up their homes if they’ve got extra beds,” Yttri said. His own family once hosted ski jumpers from Russia, which he said was a great experience for his family as well as an appreciated service for the athletes.
Co-op CEOs Among Ski-Jumping Alumni
Electric cooperatives and ski jumping may not appear to have a lot in common, but in Wisconsin, they’re remarkably connected. Three of the state’s electric co-ops are headquartered near nationally known ski-jumping hills: Snowflake Ski Jump in Westby, Silvermine Ski Hill in Eau Claire, and Norseman Hill in Iola.
Even more notable is that two of the state’s electric co-op leaders once crossed paths on some of those very hills as young members of ski-jumping families.
Craig Buros, general manager/CEO of Vernon Electric Cooperative, is a member of Westby’s all-volunteer Snowflake Ski Club. He served on the club’s board of directors for about 20 years, including a stint as president. These days, he spends tournament weekends volunteering as chief of competition, making sure the hills are in prime competition shape.
It wasn’t that long ago, however, when he spent tournament weekends partaking in some prime competition himself as a member of Snowflake’s junior team.
Like many Westby natives, Buros comes from a long line of Norwegians for whom ski-jumping was and still is a way of life. He recalled how his grandfather built a ski jump off the roof of his barn to practice on. He and his family would soar off the roof onto a snowhill he built alongside the milkhouse.
Buros took up the sport at age 10. He jumped competitively throughout the winters until college, working his way up to the 70-meter hill. His brother and teammate, Kyle, competed as well, making it all the way to the Olympic development team.
As the ski-jumping community is a tightknit one, Buros and his family got to know other ski-jumping families throughout the state and beyond. Among them was the Malvik family of Iola, including daughter Lila, who today is known as Lila Shower, president/CEO of Central Wisconsin Electric Cooperative in Rosholt.
Everyone involved in ski jumping, it seems, knew of the Malvik family’s patriarch, Sig. He emigrated from Norway in 1948, bringing his native ski-jumping tradition with him.
Sig’s long list of credentials in the sport include making the national ski-jumping team in 1954, participating on the hill crew for the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, serving as assistant coach to the national team, and being inducted into the Ski Jumping Hall of Fame.
Sig passed his love of—and talent for—ski jumping to his children and grandchildren. Firstborn son Erik competed at the Junior Olympics in 1969 and went on to compete at Junior Nationals.
Lila also started jumping early in life, but her competitive ski-jumping days ended at age 5, after her brother and a friend bet her 5 cents and a cupcake that she couldn’t jump the 15-meter hill. She accepted the bet and took the jump, but didn’t land it well. Upon seeing her daughter’s scratched-up face, Lila’s mother put an end to her competitive jumping career on the spot.
Instead, Lila transferred her competitive focus to another Nordic winter tradition: cross-country skiing. She placed 12th in the renowned Birkebeiner Cross Country race at age 14 and also won two Central Division cross-country skiing championships.
Groomed for Greatness
Competitors find an equally positive experience on the Snowflake complex. With all their generational knowledge, Snowflake Ski Club members have the hill preparation and maintenance process down pat.
“We have volunteers who are so skilled that even if there is questionable weather, they’re on the hills to make sure it’s safe for the competitors,” Keuler said.
About that weather: Yttri said a lack of snow from Mother Nature is not a big concern since the club makes all the snow for the jumps. He said artificial snow is actually preferable to natural snow for ski jumping as natural snow tends to be drier than is ideal and might contain dirt particles.
“We just want cold to make snow—that’s all we need,” he said. “We prefer around 10 degrees because then there’s a little moisture in the air. We’re probably the only ones around who actually like the cold.”
Snowmaking for the tournament typically starts in mid-December. Club members take turns operating the water pumps, which run continuously. Yttri said the big hill alone requires 120 hours of snowmaking to prepare it for competition.
By February 2 and 3, everything will be in place for both competitors and spectators to experience something great—Olympic-level great.—Mary Erickson
The 101st annual Snowflake Ski Jumping Tournament will be held February 2 and 3 at the Snowflake Ski & Golf Club, E7940 County Road P, Westby, WI 54667. Buttons good for both days of the tournament are available at snowflakeskiclub.com or from local businesses, $15 ahead of time or $20 the day of. Follow Snowflake Ski Club on Facebook for the latest details. Visit snowflakeskiclub.com or call 608-634-3211 to learn more.