It’s a windy night in Westby, Wisconsin as volunteers with the Snowflake Ski Club groom the hills below the five and ten-meter ski jumps. The temperature is mild — by Wisconsin winter standards — and about a dozen elementary school-aged kids are getting ready for practice.
For 100 years, nestled in the steep hills of the Driftless Area, this club has taught generations of local ski jumpers. It’s also hosted ski jumpers from around the world for its annual tournament. This year, it’s being held on February 3rd and 4th, 2023.
Bob Bland has been part of the festivities since his childhood in the 1950s.
“One of my first memories was we set up a place where we could flash the style points on the side of the hill with some big cardboard numbers because a lot of the crowd would like to keep score in their programs,” Bland recalled.
He said his father, Dr. P.T. Bland, first got involved in Snowflake Ski Club as a matter of public health.
“My dad was the town doctor and he got involved in the ski club,” he said. “Moved to town in 1953 and every February around the ski tournament time there’d be an influx of young men coming into the clinic with broken bones or scrapes. So he noticed an uptick in injuries around that time and he kind of got involved just to see what was happening — why these people were getting hurt. He ended up being an engineer of ski jumps. His main focus was to make them safer.”
Getting ready to host international competitors in those earlier days required a different kind of hill preparation effort than it does now, in the era of modern grooming equipment and manufactured snow.
“In those days you just hoped it snowed enough natural snow that you could get it done. They’d haul truckloads of snow up to the top and then run it through a farm equipment auger type of thing and it would blow snow through these chutes down the hill,” Bland said. “We’d get below the snow with sheets of plywood to keep the snow from going all the way down the hill. I remember once a rock came down and I was behind my plywood but it actually cracked the plywood. It stopped the rock.” Bland said he was not hurt, just scared.
Just across County P from the ski jumps is Snowflake’s clubhouse. That’s where I met “Disco” Dan Ellefson, who didn’t have much to say about the origins of that nickname.
“Uh, somebody just thought it sounded good, I think, so they just dreamed it up,” Ellefson clarified. “Because I never cared for that music, so it’s not from that.”
He said the modern snowmaking technique is a lot better.
“We make all our snow. Two or three weeks if it’s good and nothing breaks down, we can make enough snow then,” said Ellefson. “The manmade snow is a lot better to use because it holds up. Say on a day like this where we’re getting close to 40 degrees and the sun is shining, it stays hard a lot better which is a lot better for jumping.”
He would know. Disco Dan jumped competitively for some 30 years, starting on the small hills before moving up to the longer jumps.
“I was twenty — I think — the first time I skied the big hill,” he recalled. “Most guys get there before that. I thought ‘Holy smokes, am I high!’ It was fun. I got to the bottom of the hill and I thought, ‘I made it,’ and I fell backwards. I got up and I thought, ‘I can’t wait to get back up there.’”
Ellefson still remembers the weightless feeling flying off the end of the jump.
“You’re probably in the air three to four seconds. But when you’re flying through the air and just watching the ground go by underneath you, it feels like a long time. Time goes pretty slow. It’s really enjoyable,” he added.
Back across the county road at the smaller jumps, parents doubling as coaches are working with kids with ages ranging from 5 to 10 years old.
Janine Morley’s whole household is a Snowflake family. Her husband is a volunteer and her oldest daughter, Makenzie, is this year’s Snowflake Queen. Tonight, Janine Morley is here to watch and help coach her 9-year-old daughter, Maddie. She talked about what coaches are looking for in the youngest jumpers.
“Definitely balance. Their in-run, you know, the proper form. That type of thing is super important,” Morley said. “The form more so. Not so much these littles and how far they can jump — but just being able to get down and be in that in-run when they get down to land. You can really see a difference in the kids when they have the correct form.”
Snowflake’s most prominent local export was Lyle Swenson, who captained the American ski jumping team at the 1964 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria.
Morley said renewed energy around the club’s youth program has folks hoping for an equally bright future, especially among its teen competitors. “
You can tell there’s definitely some (jumpers) that are really excelling here,” Morley beamed. “We’ve got some that are just amazing to watch already this year. They’ve been traveling this year already. Eau Claire last weekend. Minneapolis, I believe they’re going to be at this weekend with a quite a few of these guys, too.”
Coach Derek Lunde is a third-generation snowflake ski jumper. He’s coaching his kids, the fourth generation of Lundes to jump in Westby.
“Yeah, it’s super fun, it’s exciting. It certainly makes a proud dad to see them come down that jump,” said Lunde. “I see a lot of similarities from just the style of the kids, how they jump and then the style of what I would do when I was a kid. So it’s kind of neat to see that and it’s real similar, that I see myself in the kids.”
But as much as he enjoys coaching, Lunde still remembers what it was like soaring off the jumps in his competitive days.
“Especially when you’re on the bigger jumps, it’s a very surreal feeling,” Lunde remembered. “You’re basically flying and there’s not a lot of things in this world that can make you feel like you’re flying in the air. So it’s the rush of that and once you do it once it’s pretty addicting.”
Volunteers, like Coach Derek Lunde, are hoping this year’s Snowflake Ski Jump Tournament helps propel the club into its next 100 years.