Watching ski jumping on TV is a thing of wonder. But nothing compares to the sights (and sounds) found a few steps below the take-off ramp as athletes fly — literally fly — just above your head.
Larry Stone has been watching jumpers fly for his entire life. He was inducted into the U.S. Ski Jumping Hall of Fame last year for his tenure as a national team coach and his contributions to the sport of women’s jumping. He’s retired now, but when he was only 8, Stoney, as the locals call him, got his ski jumping in Salisbury, a town of less than 4,000 in the far northwest corner of Connecticut.
“When I grew up in the ’50s here,” Stone said, “there were eight, maybe nine jumps in town. We all even had them in our backyards. We’d make them on little hillsides. And you just grew up here doing it like kids play baseball anywhere else.”
Stone and his neighbors competed against kids from places like Norfolk, Bear Mountain, White Plains and Rosendale, N.Y. Back in the 1950s, ski jumping was a normal part of small town culture in New England. But, somewhere along the way, that culture was lost.
“All those towns that I was talking about, they don’t have jumps anymore,” Stone said. “Used to be dozens of them and now there’s just a handful.”
Recently, the residents of Salisbury were faced with a choice: invest more than $700,000 into building a new ski jump tower, or risk becoming one of the dozens of New England towns for which ski jumping is a thing of the past.
The Salisbury Winter Sports Association, or SWSA, owns Salisbury’s ski jumps and operates jumping and skiing programs for kids in town. Willie Hallihan is one of SWSA’s 19 directors, all of whom eventually got behind the idea of building a new tower. If they built it, the Junior Olympics promised to come to town, bringing a national event to Salisbury for the first time since 1952.
“We had an old wooden tower that had been in existence for decades,” Hallihan explained. “It was basically 26 pairs of telephone poles connected by that ramp, that in run that the skiers come down and it had gotten old, it had gotten rickety. Wouldn’t let more than three jumpers up top at a time because it would sway in the wind. Just like the Empire State Building but not as strong.”
Ski jumping came to Salisbury in the 1920s with the arrival of a Norwegian immigrant, John Satre. Back home, Satre had been a world class Nordic skier. In 1926, he decided to show Salisbury what the sport was all about.
“One day he skied off the edge of a barn,” Hallihan said. “Everyone was so enthralled that the next thing you know they built a ski jump, a rudimentary one, but basically have been ski jumping ever since.”
Every Christmas break, SWSA holds a clinic to teach a couple dozen local kids to jump, starting out on a 20-meter hill hidden in the woods. Hallihan understands why there aren’t more. After all, despite all the hours he’s put into Satre Hill’s jumps, he’s never been inclined to ski off one of them.
“Never,” Hallihan laughed. “And I think if you walk to the top of the hill you may decide you wouldn’t want to either. It’s terrifying up there. When you’re at the top of the tower you’re over 300 feet off the ground. It’s a great view but the notion of going down is just too terrifying to contemplate.”
Digby Brown was in charge of making sure everyone stayed safe this week’s Junior Olympic practice jumps. He grew up jumping in another New England town, Keene, N.H. But, he is another of the 19 SWSA directors who have never jumped off Satre Hill.
“That doesn’t make any difference,” Brown said. “It’s a people thing, you know?”
Since World War II, not much has changed in the way SWSA prepares the hill for competitions. The organization now relies on snowmaking equipment, but the snow must still be set in place and grooves cut into the track by hand. When it’s time to pack the tower, dozens of townsfolk pitch in to do their part. This year, the job was scheduled for one of the coldest nights of the year.
“That’s right, you’re right, it was the coldest night I guess,” Brown admitted. “It was about 6 [degrees] or something, plus the wind. Blew about 40-50 mile per hour and we were up there, just having fun.”
The thing about warming up with extra large cup of peppermint tea at a coffeehouse in Salisbury while waiting for the parade of athletes to begin is that it’s easy to strike up a conversation with the person at the table next to you. And the person at the table next to me was, you guessed it, another one of the 19 directors of the Salisbury Winter Sports Association.
Lisa Sheble said that when building a new tower and hosting the Junior Olympics was first proposed, everyone was worried that raising the $700,000, which later grew to $850,000, wouldn’t be possible.
“We all said that,” Sheble laughed. “But somehow this little dream, because jumping is a dream anyway. Boys and girls are flying in the air, that’s not supposed to happen. So for there to be this fund-raising monstrosity of a job. It sorta goes with ski jumping some how, you know?”
Nick Moore lives in the nearby town of Sharon and volunteered this week in the ticket booth. Though this is Salisbury’s first Junior Olympics, the town holds a regional event every year. Every year Moore says the Jumps, as the competition is called, bring a sense of wonder.
“It’s almost like Brigadoon,” Moore said. “You don’t even notice that the ski jump is in town until you put the snow on it. It’s dark and brown against the hillside. And people come out of the woodwork to pack the tower, to help volunteer, to do all the little things you need to do and it happens. It’s magic.”
On Tuesday evening, a lone drummer led the 53 Junior Olympians through the center of downtown, past the Academy Building, currently hosting a photo exhibit celebrating Salisbury’s 85 years of ski jumping, and past a large donation meter with the line hovering at just under $700,000. The parade stopped at the steps of the library, said to be the oldest publicly funded free library in the country, where the young Olympians were greeted by Neil Diamond on the loudspeaker, music befitting a place where time stood still.
Nina Lussi, a 16-year-old jumper from Lake Placid, carried the Olympic flame, just a Tiki torch lit by a Bic lighter. She’s visited Salisbury many times for the annual Jumps, and she might be the only one who misses the old tower.
“It’s kinda sad,” Nina said. “I mean it’s not the same old rickety tower that it used to be. That part of it is a little bit sad that it’s gone but the new tower and the new hill are simply amazing and it’s now one of the best in the country and everyone’s lucky to be able to be jumping here.”
After the cauldron was lit, and volunteers and jumpers headed off to a spaghetti dinner, Roy Sherwood, a 78-year-old lifelong resident of Salisbury, agreed to one last interview.
“I’ve been very fortunate to be one of the better ones to come out of this town. Or the best,” Sherwood said proudly. “I have to blow my own horn once in a while.”
Sherwood represented the U.S. in ski jumping at the 1956 Winter Olympics in Italy. He proudly carried Salisbury’s name to Europe and back, and his hometown did everything they could to support him.
“I worked for the highway department, they gave me a job so I could take off and of course that’s the busiest time of the year,” Sherwood explained. “Some of the guys didn’t like it too much that I was off ski jumping while they were plowing snow, but I did it. And I did it well.”
Sherwood encourages new athletes to try ski jumping, but says today’s kids are too lazy to climb Satre Hill’s 300 stairs. They’d rather go downhill skiing, where they can take the lift. But, with the new tower, Sherwood has found new hope…for his town, and for his sport.
“It’s a great town, isn’t it?” Sherwood smiled. “All it can do is get better. So many times I said, ‘I’m so glad I was born in Salisbury.’ ”
The 2011 Ski Jumping and Nordic Combined Junior Olympics conclude today with the team jump competition on Satre Hill followed by a potluck bonfire party, closing ceremonies and the extinguishing of the Olympic cauldron at the Scoville Memorial Library in Salisbury.