The U.P. does winter sports a little more extreme than most places

The Ishpeming Ski Club has been around for 130 years, and club leaders through the decades have somehow managed to keep the main thing the main thing. A recent promotional message from the organization asks the same question it has been asking since the late 1880s:

"What if you could defy gravity and really fly?"

For some people, the phrase "winter sports" means standing on an ice-covered lake and hoping to pull some perch out of a hole. Others imagine cruising down a groomed trail on a $6,000 machine. Still others picture chair lifts, chalets and hot cocoa by the fire.

But for generations of Yoopers, winter has meant asking the question "What if …?" It has meant making their way to the nearest ski jumping hill and finding out whether they have what it takes to defy gravity and really fly.

In most parts of the country--even in northern climates--ski jumping is an exotic activity that shows up on TV once every four years as part of the Winter Olympics. But for a dedicated band of ski jumpers in Marquette County, it's part of their winter routine, as normal as scraping ice off windshields.

Gary Rasmussen of Negaunee first became interested in the sport in February 1964, when as a child he discovered he was a descendant of ski jumping royalty. While rummaging through a box in the attic of his family's home, he found scrapbooks along with trophies earned by his father, Wilbert Rasmussen.

The elder Rasmussen was a national champion ski jumper and a member of two world championship teams as well as the U.S. Olympic team in 1952. He was later inducted into the U.S. Ski Hall of Fame, one of 13 members of the Ishpeming Ski Club to have earned the honor.

A year after learning about his father's accomplishments, Rasmussen attended the annual ski jumping competition hosted by the ISC at Suicide Hill in Ishpeming. The star of the day was a Japanese jumper, Yukio Kasaya, who set a hill record of 277 feet. "I was there with my dad, and I turned to him and said, 'I want to do that'," he says. "It was an awesome experience standing there to watch it and see the crowd's reaction." Seven years later, Kasaya led a Japanese sweep of the Olympic podium.

When he started ski jumping, Rasmussen says, he fell in love with speed. "I enjoyed jumping even as a little boy," he says. "It was fun sliding down the hill. … Anyone who skis downhill at Marquette Mountain knows it's a blast.

"I truly believe ski jumping is the original extreme sport… For some, the speed is overwhelming, but I found it to be exhilarating. Speed is a thrill, but the ultimate thrill is the time in the air. Once you hit takeoff and start to fly, you can feel the lift and you're literally flying. That being said, that type of air carry doesn't start until you're jumping on larger hills."

Rasmussen was a member of the ski jumping team at Northern Michigan University in the late 1970s, until the NCAA dropped the sport. He later served as head coach of the Olympic Training Center team based at NMU and is now head ski jumping coach with the Ishpeming Ski Club.

He says, "Some people look up and say, 'There's no way on God's green acres I'll ever jump that.' And others--a small percentage--say, 'That's for me.'"

As coach of the ISC ski jumping program, Rasmussen's objective is to recruit new jumpers, create interest in the sport within the community, and teach the basics. In the summer and fall, that entails dry-land training including gym workouts and technical sessions. In the winter, up to a dozen team members will participate in three to six competitions throughout the Midwest. This January 14, as part of Negaunee's revitalized Heikki Lunta Festival, the club will host a ski jumping competition at Suicide Hill.

The Ishpeming Ski Club also sponsors a youth ski jumping program scheduled to begin January 5. Jumping sessions will be held at Suicide Hill every Tuesday and Thursday from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. The club provides skis, boots, helmets, suits and coaching free of charge.

Rasmussen says adults are also welcome to try the sport, as long as they realize it could take a couple of years before they're ready to jump on the larger hills.

Spectators will be able to take in two international competitions in the U.P. this winter. The first is the 129th Annual Ski Jumping Tournament at Suicide Hill in Ishpeming, set for 6 p.m. February 17. Jumpers from Finland, Norway, Slovenia, and the United States are expected to participate.

Just over a week later, on February 25-26, Pine Mountain in Iron Mountain will host the Continental Cup, sanctioned by the International Ski Federation. Attendance is expected to be around 20,000.

Winter sports enthusiasts who prefer their thrills a little closer to ground level can find what they're looking for less than three miles from Suicide Hill.

Lucy Hill in Negaunee, home of the Upper Peninsula Luge Club, is the only full-length natural luge track in the country. Built around 1990, it's 810 meters long--a half-mile--and features an 11 percent average slope.

Natural tracks (or naturbahn) differ from the artificial tracks used in the Winter Olympics (kunstbahn), as they follow the contours of the hill and are bordered by snow banks and boards. Naturbahn lugers use their feet, hands and bodies to steer as they head down the ice-covered track.

Lucy Hill is open for public sliding from 6 to 9 p.m. Fridays and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays. The cost is $10 per person either day or $20 per household on Fridays. In addition, group reservations are available Sundays, for $200. Equipment and instruction are included. The luge club also has several days of events scheduled for the Heikki Lunta Festival.

For more information about Lucy Hill and the Upper Peninsula Luge Club, visit them online here.

Michael Murray is a freelance writer based in Marquette, Michigan.
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