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Snowflake Ski Jumping Tournament in Westby attracts international field

WESTBY — It’s perhaps the closest thing there is to flying.

Perched atop a 150-foot scaffold, Augie Schini edged onto the ramp. He crouched down as he ascended and accelerated. Leaning forward, his body took flight.

Skis spread into a “V” position, the 17-year-old soared through the air, landing smoothly on the snow-covered hill before gliding down the slope to the sound of some 3,000 spectators clapping and cheering.

One of 28 competitors in the 95th annual Snowflake Ski Jumping Tournament in Timber Coulee, Schini was something of an anomaly. The Central High School student has been the only local to participate in the tournament the past two years, competing among athletes ranging in age from 12 to 22 from across the U.S, Finland, Slovenia and Norway. Having jumped for only three years, the relative newcomer to the sport faced jumpers with several years experience, many with a rich history of ski jumping in their blood.

Peter Thomson, La Crosse Tribune 

Rick Pflum of Fond du Lac dons a hat made of a coyote Saturday while watching the 95th annual Snowflake Ski Jump Tournament at the Snowflake Ski Club in rural Westby.

“I’m not stressed,” Schini said, coming off his first qualifying jump. “It’s kind of like an honor to be the only (local) one here.”

Schini hit the slopes at a young age, strapping on skis as a toddler, the first in his family to jump. The ambitious teen placed third in the under 20 male division Jan. 6 at the Snowflake Junior Ski Jumping Tournament, and competed as number 34 in Saturday’s competition, the last of five events in the Five Hills Tour US Cup North American Championships, after a 90-meter jump in Eau Claire, 70-meter jumps in Minneapolis and Chicago, and a second 90-meter hill in Ishpeming, Mich.

At 118 meters, or 388 feet, Westby’s Snowflake Ski Club hill is the granddaddy of the competition, both Olympic in size and the seventh-largest hill in North America. Jumpers can reach speeds of up to 50 mph during the run-in (the descent down the ramp), which is concluded in a whirlwind three seconds.

Competitors began with a trial run Saturday afternoon before two judged rounds, scored on distance and form, followed by a “long standing” competition for a cash prize. Former competitor Joe Erlandson calls the skill level comparable to that of a college division, and three past Snowflake Ski Club jumpers are competing in the 2018 Winter Olympics, kicking off Friday in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

“Being an Olympic year, the kids get more interested,” Snowflake Ski Club member Scott Yttri said of the number of participants, up this year from an average of 22. “They want to try out an Olympic-style hill.”

Preparing and maintaining the colossal slope is an Olympic-sized job in itself, with an all-volunteer staff dedicating 120 hours to making snow and dozens more hours grooming and packing the powder. Weather has only halted the competition once in its history, when unusually warm temperatures caused the snow to melt, leaving behind a mud hill.

Uncooperative weather is a challenge for local jumpers like Schini, whose practice schedule is dependent on the amount of snow. Erlandson notes many European countries install plastic slopes, which can cost around $1 million.

Peter Thomson, La Crosse Tribune 

Augie Schini, 17, a senior at Central High school, competes Saturday at the Snowflake Ski Jump Tournament at the Snowflake Ski Club in rural Westby. Schini was the only local in a field of 28 skiers from the US and Europe.

“To be a great ski jumper, you need to be able to train year-round,” Erlandson said. “(Building a plastic slope) is kind of our vision, I hope.”

Practice is a part-time job for Jonas Viken, 20, one of three competitors from Norway, who carves out up to 20 hours each week to hone his skills. The son of a competitive jumper, Viken was just 7 when he began jumping.

“It’s a real adrenaline kick,” said Viken, who called the Westby slope “different — much steeper than I’m used to, but really fun.”

Viken, who is considering a run at the 2022 or 2026 Olympic games, was satisfied with the level of competition, while Mollie Immens, 17, of Fox River Grove, Ill., found the tournament less intimidating than usual, with only one other female in her division. Immens was the sole third-generation participant at the event, and has a dozen years of practice behind her.

“I’m just focusing on the fun part today,” Immens said.

Despite facing off against seasoned competitors, Schini seemed at ease as he pulled off his skis after his first jump, which came in at a distance of 82 meters. His record is 112 meters, achieved the week prior, and Schini was eager to break into the triple digits — but perhaps more excited to see his friends, who rallied around the perimeter to pat him on the back as he took a brief break.

Schini put in three days of practice prior to Saturday’s big event, which he found to have a higher level of competition than the prior year. Mastering his takeoff has proven his biggest challenge, but his confidence was still high Saturday. He’s proud of his progression over the past year.

Schini has Olympic dreams, acknowledging the dedication and focus required, but says the aerodynamacy is the ultimate reward.

“It’s just like floating in the air,” Schini said, “with skis on.”

On this, they agree: McFarland Olympians Becca and Matt Hamilton ready to take on the curling world

MADISON — Go back to the days before the appearance on late-night TV with Jimmy Fallon, before the music video, before they both qualified for two events at the Pyeongchang Olympics.

Even when Becca and Matt Hamilton were just siblings driving together to the Madison Curling Club to practice at odd hours, the natural sibling rivalry would come through.

Would you always think your older brother or younger sister was right?

So when Becca and Matt, both of McFarland, were put together as a mixed doubles team out of the pool of players in USA Curling’s High Performance Program, there was the potential for fireworks.

“I didn’t want to believe that he was calling the right shot, and he didn’t want to believe that I was calling the right shot,” Becca said.

Matt can be somewhat direct with his sister.

“Yeah, it’s a little bit blunt,” he said. “But at the same time, she knows that it’s coming from a good place and it’s coming from a spot that’s going to put us in the best position to win.”

Frayed nerves and brief family squabbles aside, it has all worked for the best in the pair’s curling.

Becca qualified for the 2018 Olympics with fellow McFarland native Nina Roth’s team in November. Hours later, Matt completed the family set with a spot on the U.S. men’s team.

Then they teamed up to win the December trials to become the first U.S. Olympic team for the new mixed doubles discipline.

It wrapped up a year in which both Hamiltons were named USA Curling’s top athlete in their gender.

That’s the kind of sequence of events that makes you feel like you can take on the world.

“I’ve watched my brother work hard for so many years, and to watch him to accomplish his goal and me to accomplish mine together and to go to the Olympics together is really going to be an awesome experience,” Becca said.

Mixed doubles, a shorter version of the game that cuts team size in half, starts in Gangneung, South Korea, on Thursday (Wednesday Madison time). Team competition begins Feb. 14 (Feb. 13 Madison time).

Instead of 10 ends of eight stone throws per team like in a typical curling game, mixed doubles goes eight ends and has five throws. Each team also places a stone in or near the house, the rings that serve as the target.

With fewer shots, competitors have fewer opportunities to make up for mistakes. They also have only two voices contributing to decision-making, and with the Hamiltons, they can make theirs heard without making a sound.

‘We’re on the same page’

One of the spectator-friendly components of curling is that competitors wear wireless microphones so TV audiences can get a window into the discussions. That feature sometimes gets shut out when the Hamiltons are playing.

“We’re on the same page with a lot of shots,” Matt said. “A lot of times I can just motion to what I think the shot is, and she knows exactly what I’m talking about.”

Their mixed doubles career didn’t start well, however.

“The first year, we did not do well just because we didn’t know how to control each other,” Becca said.

It was a short-lived problem.

At the 2017 U.S. national championship, they lost three of their first four games and needed to win two tiebreaker matches just to get into the quarterfinals.

Once they did, there was no stopping them on the way to the title.

“Getting that momentum going and seeing that we can actually work together and that it’s in our hands, if we can control how we’re talking to each other, we’re going to have a good outcome,” Becca said. “We’ve had some good success since then.”

It has carried over into team competition.

Becca, 27, plays as the lead on Roth’s team, and the pair shares a long history together on the ice.

As a second-year player in 2007, Becca got the call to be the alternate on Roth’s team for the junior nationals.

“From that point on, I knew that I wanted more and I wanted to be better,” Becca said. “And the following year we won the national championship. From there, we always had our eyes set on the Olympics.”

The team personnel combinations changed from time to time out of the High Performance Program pool, but by last March, Hamilton, Roth and Minnesota natives Aileen Geving and Tabitha Peterson were competing together at the World Women’s Championship in China.

They placed fifth there. This season, they went into Olympic team trials with two tournament final appearances and one title.

“This season, we’re getting better and better every tournament,” Becca said. “I just had a really good feeling going into trials, knowing that our team was really playing well and sitting in a good spot.”

‘Reject team’

Matt, 28, didn’t have the same experience with the High Performance Program that his sister did. He wasn’t one of the athletes originally invited in 2014, and neither was then-three-time Olympian John Shuster, a Minnesota native who now lives in Superior.

Shuster convinced Matt to be part of what they cheekily were calling a “reject team” with Tyler George and John Landsteiner. It ended up winning the national championship in 2015, beating a High Performance Program team skipped by Madison’s Craig Brown twice in the playoffs.

“The U.S. program couldn’t ignore us after that, so they actually invited us in the next year as is, didn’t break our team up, didn’t try to add anyone,” Matt said. “And it’s really worked out well for everybody. Now we’re the only team in curling in the world that has finished in the top five at the worlds for the last three years.

“No other team has had that consistency. So we’re just really confident going into these Olympics, thinking that we’re in the hunt.”

Matt got started in curling in 2004, not long after his dad, Scott, picked up the game at the Madison Curling Club in McFarland. It also was not long after he originally thought the sport was “a little bit lame.”

After trying it out with some high school friends, he realized the error of his ways: “I was very, very wrong.”

Becca had club members Ed Sheffield and Steve Brown as coaches early in her curling career, but Matt made one of the biggest impressions on her.

“My brother was probably one of my meanest coaches,” she said, “but he was a coach nonetheless.”

No sugarcoating things

Matt got right to the point with his coaching.

“She knows I’m her brother. There’s no reason for me to sugarcoat anything to her,” he said. “Because she knows I love her to death and I’d do anything for her.”

They have their own personalities, Scott Hamilton said. Matt is the more animated, colorful one on the ice. Becca has the calmer exterior.

But, deep down, they share what their dad called a sibling rawness that they have honed to their advantage.

“They get on each other, but I think that gives them a little edge on the other guy,” Scott Hamilton said. “Because the other guy’s not going to say that stuff to their partner.”

It’s been a long time since Becca caught rides to the curling club in Matt’s car so they could practice against each other.

Now they’ve flown together to New York to play bar curling with Fallon and Jason Sudeikis on “Late Night,” got photos with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and appeared in a Cheetos web music video with singer Todrick Hall and former NFL players Vernon Davis and LaDainian Tomlinson.

And they’re about to make good on an idea hatched three years ago when the Hamiltons learned of the new Olympic curling discipline that would let them compete together.

“We thought, who knows, maybe some kids from McFarland can make an Olympic team as brother-sister mixed doubles duo,” Matt said. “I guess we were right.”