`When skiers soared at Big Hill'
By William D. Behling
BELIEVE IT OR not, some of us remember when there wasn't a Super Bowl. Not even all of the Sunday afternoon playoff and title games to decide which teams got to meet for the Big One. Nor did the megabucks pro golf tournaments occupy hours of prime television time on the Sunday afternoons of winter.
Even without the televised sports events that keep us occupied on cold-weather Sundays when we can't cut the grass or go on picnics or play golf, let me tell you that life was anything but boring. Especially when Beloit was the ski-jumping capital of the country on two or three given Sundays each winter.
You need to have been Beloiters for almost 50 years to remember the big ski slide at Big Hill Park. The jumping meets there brought thousands to the hill to watch hometown fellows as well as skiers from throughout the upper Midwest and Europe to see how far they could make themselves airborne.
AFTER ZOOMING DOWN the 232-foot slide at 60 mph in a crouched position, jumpers made a mighty lunge as they hit the turned-up end of the slide.
The jumper whose lunge was timed just right, and who leaned his body forward to lessen wind resistance and kept his long skis straight throughout the few seconds that he sailed through the air and managed to touch down without falling on the steep landing hill, often made leaps of around 200 feet. If that doesn't sound very far, try it sometime.
Those long, graceful jumps were real crowd-pleasers. But when a skier's timing was off, or his skis got crossed during flight, or his knees didn't flex just right when he landed, the crowd gasped. Skis flew off or splintered, the skier fell, arms and legs flailing and body tumbling in a way that made the spectators gasp.
MORE OFTEN THAN not, the hapless jumper injured nothing but his pride. But many a bone was broken, and it wasn't uncommon to see the skier slide ignominiously to the bottom of the landing hill and stop in a crumpled heap. He'd had the wind knocked out of him by the hard fall.
The ski jumping tournament audiences appreciated and applauded long, graceful jumps that ended with the jumper swooshing to a triumphal, standing stop, and were only part of the entertainment. The real thrills were in the spills. Just as in most rugged sports, racecar pile-ups, multi-body collisions in football and hockey and similar calamities that can befall athletes, spectators tend to be a trifle bloodthirsty. It was no different with ski jumping; one expected to witness some frightful falls. It was part of the sport.
The first jumping competition from the Big Hill slide, which stood 133 feet tall on the hill and towered above the treetops as a landmark visible for miles around, was Jan. 29, 1939. A fellow named Bruno Sari of Ispheming, Mich., won that event with a relatively short jump of 175 feet. Contestants were buffeted in flight by strong crosswinds.
TORGER TOKLE OF Norway set a tournament record of 212 feet on Jan. 21, 1940, but at a later jump Jim Running of Beloit soared 217 feet for a record that stood as long as the big slide stood atop Big Hill.
The slide was taken down in 1959 and sold to the Snowflake Ski Club of Westby, Wis., which still uses it for jumping tournaments.
This columnist recalls the jumping events at Big Hill and wishes the slide could have been kept here. As a small boy whose farm home was only a mile or so, cross-country, from the hill, I trudged through snow and stood out on the river's ice to watch the proceedings. Admission prices were low, but there was no money in our family for such things.
Later, as a Daily News photographer, I “covered” the last few jumps before the Beloit Ski Club had to stop hosting the events. Partly because the vagaries of southern Wisconsin weather often forced cancellation or postponement of the tournaments, and partly because most of the spectator interest was well north of here, the ski club rarely made any profit and often lost money.
Next: Norwegian immigrants popularized ski jumping here and formed first Beloit Ski Club.
William D. Behling is Editor Emeritus of the Beloit Daily News.