WESTBY — The Coon Valley and Westby area took a sucker punch — make that punches — to the stomach this summer when nearly a foot of rain fell, then ripped through the usually tranquil valleys.
Many of us witnessed what it did to the houses and businesses of Coon Valley as well as surrounding farms. Lives were, and remain, forever changed.
What many folks likely didn’t know is what it did to Timber Coulee, the longtime home of the Snowflake Ski Club. It ripped away a number of the club’s walk bridges, and caused some damage to the club’s world renowned 118-meter ski jumping hill.
What Mother Nature couldn’t do was take away the spirit of the nearly 100-member club.
Sucker punch countered.
So when the club held its 96th annual Snowflake Ski Jumping Tournament under the lights Friday and under unseasonably warm skies Saturday, there were plenty of club members and volunteers smiling. Not just because of a 40-degree day, but because once again the club pulled off another memorable tournament.
The tradition, with 24 jumpers from five different countries, continues.
A Saturday crowd, estimated by Snowflake officials at nearly 4,000, were circling roaring bonfires, sitting in lawn chairs, or simply tailgating around their vehicles. It didn’t matter where they were as they seemed to enjoy every jump as they rang cowbells and honked car horns. The festival-like atmosphere of this unique event has returned.
“I think this is the world’s second-best hill. Kosovo, Finland (is the best) because it is a little bit bigger than this one. You do go so high on this hill, so it is nice,” said 20-year-old Niko Loytainen, a member of the Finish National B Team who nailed a 117-meter beauty on his second jump of Saturday’s competition and finished fifth overall.
“It is a bigger crowd than in Finland. I just like jumping and I like the atmosphere here. I get to travel the world and meet new people, so this is fun. The main thing, of course, is the jumping.”
Jumpers were broken down into three classes — Masters, U20 Male and Five Hills — and were allowed three jumps. They were given one trial jump and two competitive jumps. Jumpers are graded not only on distance, but style and technique.
Five judges, who are sitting nearly halfway up the hill in what amounts to a human bird house, award points to each jumper. Points from the two competitive jumps are combined for an overall total.
For example, Nik Fabijan of Team Slovenia, turned in identical 116-meter jumps Friday night and had an overall combined score of 255.3 points. That was 10.2 points better than Jorgen Madsen of Norway, who had jumps of 112 and 113.5 meters.
On Saturday, Nik Fabijan of Slovenia soared 109 and 119 meters on his jumps, winning the Senior Male (Five Hills Tour) competition with 247.6 points. That left him slightly ahead of Norway’s Jorgen Madsen, who had jumps of 108.5 and 117 meters for 246.6 points.
The two-day competition at Timber Coulee wrapped up what is called the Five Hills Tour, said Snowflake Ski Club president Dan Ellefson. Competitors jump on hills at Eau Claire, Minneapolis, Chicago, Ishpeming, Mich., and Westby. They accumulate points on each hill, and an overall winner is declared.
“We have had that (tour) the last few years,” said Ellefson, who was pleasantly surprised with Saturday’s large turnout. “We keep changing our marketing and the way we advertise changes with the times.
“There has gotten to be more younger people involved in the club, and I think that has been a big help.”
There has gotten to be younger jumpers, too. Take, for example, 12-year-old Maxim Glyvka, a seventh-grader from Fox River Grove, Ill.
His parents are immigrants from the Ukraine, where his father, Oleg, ski jumped as well as two of his uncles. One of his uncles, Vladimir Glyvka, jumped at Timber Coulee years ago.
“My Dad started with me (jumping), and I had two uncles who were both international level jumpers,” Glyvka said. “In our town, I live right by the jump and everybody knows about the jump.”
The ski jumping hill at Fox River Grove is a 70-meter hill, significantly smaller than Timber Coulee’s big (118-meter) hill, Glyvka said. He has been building up to the big hill, he said, ever since he jumped at a 90-meter hill in Park City, Utah, as a 10-year-old.
So when Friday night rolled around, he was hoping to get the go-ahead.
“You start on the smaller jumps, then when you get better and better you get the go-ahead from your coach to jump big hills like this,” said Glyvka, who finished seventh with jumps of 83 and 80 meters for 115.1 points. “It is nice when your coach tells you that you can go up on a bigger hill like this.”
So when did Glyvka get the nod to jump at Timber Coulee?
“Yesterday (Friday) was my first time out at Westby,” Glyvka said, smiling. “It feels very nice and on the better jumps you have, you really feel like you are flying.
“It is just a surreal experience.”
Jumpers are, if only for a few fleeting seconds, flying like a bird without wings. Their long and wide skis, quickly put in a ‘V’ formation, provide lift almost like wings of an airplane.
“The skis are bigger now. Wider, longer, as they have changed the rules on that,” said Ellefson, who took his last jump off the big hill at Timber Coulee in 1982. “Everybody skis in the ‘V’ style now, where before it was parallel skis together.
“It (V style) gives you more lift if you are good at it.”
What gave Snowflake Ski Clup members, along with the competitors, a big lift was not only another successful tournament, but the size of the crowds.
The Snowflake Ski Club, which admittedly struggled with a number of things from the number of competitors to fans to funding, has persevered through several lean years.
The success of the 96th tournament, it seems, ensures there will be a 97th tournament, and well beyond.
The reason for the turnaround?
“Stubborn Norwegian volunteers,” Ellefson said, smiling and only half-joking. “I guess we just all love it.”