This article is part of our Beijing Olympics series.
It is impossible not to notice the ski jump. It looms above the office parks of southwest Minneapolis, Mount Everest to their glass-walled foothills. At night, it glows — power lights reflecting on snow in a soft-focused, brilliant white, like angels descending into a 1970s shampoo ad. If you drive by it on the city’s outer highway loop, it will catch your eye, turning your head away from the road. You’ll have just enough time to think, “Wait, is that a freakin’ ski jump?” And then it’s gone … just a glare in the rearview mirror and a lingering puzzlement. “Who, in God’s name, is using that thing?”
Children, mostly, it turns out.
Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights, plus Saturday mornings, they come to hurtle themselves down icy trenches carved into packed snow — faster and faster (they can’t really control the speed) until they hit the end of the track. In a moment, their bodies tense, burst into a jump and float away on the blistering winter breeze. Or, anyway, that’s what happens to the teens and preteens. The really little kids — 4, 5, 6 years old — are on a smaller hill, one you can’t see from the highway. For them, it’s more of a bunny hop, like taking your bike off a curb, except they’re on skis and zipping along, arms akimbo, somehow, miraculously, not falling over until friction finally brings them to a stop. “If you have some ski experience, it’s not required. But it helps,” said Diedra Geye, as we watch what seems like a desperately small person bounce off the hump on what I am told is their first-ever ski jump.
These children are important. Ski jumping is not exactly a dying sport in the United States, but it wouldn’t be amiss to say it’s suffering from a chronic illness. Keeping it alive requires the money and people to build and maintain huge, imposing infrastructure. As those jumps have gotten safer and more expensive, they’ve become more rare — more of a “Whoa, is that real?” moment, even in the Nordic-culture-influenced Upper Midwest. But keeping ski jumping alive also requires convincing as many people as possible that suiting up and letting gravity have its way with your body (or your child’s body) is a totally normal, casual thing that lots of people like you already do. And that’s harder the more the jumps themselves become something you can’t really quite believe you saw.
For $25, you can bring your child out to the Minneapolis Ski Club and give them their first shot at jumping — all equipment included. The hill they use for these forays is nothing like what you see in the Olympics. It’s a gentle slope of snow packed into wooden forms with icy, slick channels hollowed out where the skis go. Ski jumpers call it an 8-meter hill, but that’s not a measurement of its height. Instead, it describes how far somebody might reasonably go jumping off it, the distance to the point where the landing hill begins to flatten. Children stand at the top on comically long skis, holding onto wooden brackets like garden gates before they finally decide to push themselves off the edge. The new kids mostly just bump over the foot-high drop between the launch slope and the landing hill. At first, the challenge is simply getting up the nerve to go at all.
Diedra married into a family in which this first jump is an early childhood rite of passage. Her husband, brothers-in-law and father-in-law all started young, with her husband jumping by age 4. By the time her own kids got started standing at the top of the bunny hill, it wasn’t hard to watch them go down. And they progress quickly. Her brother-in-law’s stepson is 9. I watched him the night I visited, as he stood at the top of the 18-meter hill, strapped into his long, flat skis and dressed in a shiny green ski suit and helmet. He was practicing holding his body in a crouch, with his arms straight out behind, before jumping skis-and-all into the air. When he went down the hill for real, I got to see what is, technically, one of the harder parts of ski jumping form — keeping your arms still in the air, rather than scrabbling at nothing for balance like a cartoon coyote.
Distance is the big thing ski jumping is judged by, both in the Olympics and in the events kids like this drive from from state to state to compete in. But style comes into it as well. These kids are practicing not just jumping, but jumping into the air in a strong, aggressive motion, flattening themselves as parallel as they can while they fly and keeping their arms strong and still. They practice two or three times a week, hauling their skis up the stairs to the top of the hills over and over again. The families that do get involved in this get passionate about it. Hence, so many people with the last name Geye.
Adults can try ski jumping, as well, Diedra’s brother-in-law Peter Geye told me. It’s the same price. “But it’s more of a hassle. We don’t get psyched up when the adults come, because it’s usually a bucket list thing. They never stick with it,” he said. Out of 75 club members who pay for jumping privileges, only two are adults. One a Swiss man in his 50s who also started the sport as a child but came back to it in his 30s and now jumps off the big 70-meter hill with the teenagers. The second adult joined just this week.
There’s some irony to ski jumping being so kid-focused today, given that it began as a “hold my beer and watch this” moment for a Norwegian military officer. Olaf Rye made history’s first recorded ski jump on Nov. 22, 1808, to prove his bravery and general awesomeness to a bunch of his soldiers. The hill he jumped from was hand-built on site for the occasion, just a big pile of snow. Rye went 9.4 meters that day — not a lot farther than what’s possible on the bunny hill that 5-year-olds now jump off regularly at the Minneapolis Ski Club.
But Rye’s jump had outsized importance for Norwegian culture. The sport was, for many years, a very specifically Norwegian thing. The country has dominated Olympic medals in ski jumping, especially during the first few decades of the Winter Olympics. And ski jumping is still normalized (and championed) there in a way that’s probably unique in the world. There’s a park in Oslo named in Rye’s honor. The capital is also home to one of the most famous ski jumping hills in the world, the Holmenkollen, which sits in the middle of a residential neighborhood and has the capacity for 70,000 spectators — which it regularly reaches.
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It is easy for a Norwegian kid to imagine ski jumping as a thing they, personally, can go out and do. That’s harder in the United States now. But it used to be easier: When Peter’s dad, Jim, was a kid in north Minneapolis, he and his friends would grab their skis after Boy Scout meetings and go out to a ski jumping hill that once stood in a nearby city park. Ski jumping was more like pick-up basketball for his generation. Kids built little jumps from snow and boards in the city wildflower garden — not all that different from Rye’s jump 150 years before.
Bigger hills were more numerous, too. Today, members of the Minneapolis Ski Club drive hundreds of miles — to Wisconsin, to Chicago, to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan — to get to competitions with what are considered “nearby” ski clubs. Granted, the old hills were often built by amateurs and poorly maintained. Several were condemned in the 1990s, but at that point, Peter and his generation had been using them, rickety gaping boards and all, for their whole childhoods. “It was a regular feature for us to be scared out of our minds, because the hill was a layer of ice and it was ruddy. And it was bumpy. And now it’s just pristine,” he said.
Today, hills are professionally designed. The club does its own maintenance, but the equipment is better and the standards are higher. There’s even summer ski jumping, at least on the smaller hills, thanks to a system of plastic matting and pumped water. But all of that costs money. Updating the jumps from those scary ones Peter remembers as a kid cost around $750,000 in 2002. The 70-meter hill still isn’t updated to allow for summer jumping, Peter told me, because doing that would cost nearly half a million dollars on its own — too much for a club where the ski chalet was built from construction site castoffs, with Peter’s own high school skis taking the place of wall trim. Ski jumping is safer now, Peter told me, but the move away from makeshift also meant fewer kids growing up seeing ski jumps, building their own and considering ski jumping to be a normal part of life. There are 33 operating ski jumping locations in the United States today, according to the online publication Ski Jumping Hill Archive. The same site counts an additional 161 other ski jumps that used to exist in this country, but no longer do. Minnesota, alone, has gone from having 21 ski jumps to four.
And the result of that has been fewer American ski jumpers. The Minneapolis club’s small numbers are a reflection of the sport as a whole, Peter told me, even at the elite levels. Fifteen people (six men and nine women) competed in the U.S. ski jumping Olympic trials last December. Four men and one woman went to the games in Beijing. In contrast, there are 164 Americans whose alpine skiing results were being tracked by the International Ski Federation as potential members of the 2022 U.S. alpine ski team … and 18 of them went to Beijing.
Where there’s been growth, it’s really been about expanding the possibilities for people who hadn’t seen themselves as potential ski jumpers in the past. Olympic ski jumping was a male-only sport all the way up until 2014. There are now only three single-sex Olympic sports left.1 The battle over this was led by American women, Peter and Diedra told me. And it was hard-fought. As recently as 2005, the head of the International Ski Federation was publicly claiming ski jumping wasn’t “medically appropriate” for women, despite the fact that American women had been ski jumping competitively within the U.S. for years.
Opening Olympic ski jumping to women — and allowing more little girls to imagine themselves doing it — had an effect on the Minneapolis club, Peter said. “I was thinking about this today, because there were four new kids trying it today. All four of them were young girls. I think the oldest was 11,” he said. For the last seven or eight years, his brother Tony Geye agreed, more than 50 percent of the kids trying ski jumping for the first time have been girls.
Similarly, the club has tried to make the bar to entry low for lots of people — kids of color, kids who aren’t “go skiing on the weekends” wealthy. For the ones who want to keep going after their first try, the cost of ski jumping is on par with things like swim lessons or recreation league hockey. A year of jumping for one skier — summer and winter, all the equipment and coaching you need included — is $550. It’s not dirt cheap, but it is doable for probably a lot more families than there are families who know it’s even a thing they could try. The catch here remains awareness, comfort and the ability to look at that hill and think, “That’s a thing a person like me could do.” The Olympics has changed that equation for girls, but there’s still a big gap for kids who aren’t white and kids for whom skiing at all seems prohibitively out of reach.
But the ski club keeps trying.
From the top of the 70-meter ski jump, the highway looks like a river of tail lights with the downtown skyline shining in the distance. The wind up there is ferocious — pushing you with two hands toward the downhill run, whether you really want to go that way or not. For the jumpers, it’s just a gentle encouragement. One after the other, the teenagers (and one middle-aged man) climbed the long stairs, strapped skis to their feet, sat themselves on a wooden bar across the top … and then pushed forward, flying downhill on the arms of the wind, ready to fly toward the lights in the distance.
“This would be moderately insane, you know,” Peter told me, as we watched them go. “You have to be a really good ski jumper to go off this ski jump. But the distance between an 8-year-old and this is just six or seven years.”
CORRECTION (Feb. 22, 2022, 11:55 a.m.): An earlier version of the map in this story incorrectly located Colorado’s 19 current and former ski jumps in Wyoming. Wyoming has no ski jumps.