This Fox River Grove landmark has served as a launching pad for young ski jumpers for over a century, sending them to new heights they thought they’d never reach.
It’s 3 p.m. on a crisp day in late fall. The sun fades over the distant horizon as winds gust across the trees and the Fox River. At nearly 230 feet above the ground, 59-year-old Scott Smith performs routine maintenance on one of the top ski jumps in America. This is far from his first time staring down a massive ramp that reaches 20 stories into the air.
At just 7 years old, Smith discovered how to fly – and the rest is history.
“When I was a kid, I was a daredevil,” says Smith. “I came here and was instantly hooked.”
He’s not alone.
For well over a century, Norge Ski Club in Fox River Grove has attracted all types, from the daredevils to the fans who love watching them launch from a 70-meter jump at speeds upward of 60 mph. It’s a spectacle seeing ski jumpers fly hundreds of feet through the suburban skies.
Children race downhill with dreams of Olympic glory, and every winter national and international amateur athletes test each others’ mettle at Norge. It’s the stuff dreams are made of – and sometimes, dreams do come true.
One of the nation’s top learning centers for Olympic Ski Jumping, Norge has five jumps that range in skill level from beginner to advanced. There’s the 5-meter, 10-meter and 25-meter jumps for starters. On the left side of the hill is a 40-meter jump, and smack dab in the middle is what’s known as the “K70.”
At over half the size of a football field stacked vertically, Norge’s K70 is considered one of the best 70-meter jumps in the country, Smith says. It’s been rebuilt and refurbished twice in recent decades – once in 1981 after a fire and again in 2004.
By Olympics standards, the K70 is smaller than the typical 90- and 120-meter jumps. But it’s still not for the faint of heart.
The club’s motto, “learn to fly,” stands true. For years, it’s been the backdrop for Norge’s junior ski jumping program, which Smith says has become one of the top programs in the country.
Participants start by learning the fundamentals of ski jumping before competing in fall and wintertournaments. Typically, the programs run from May through November and January through March.
The program has around 60 youth competitors and nine levels that range from 8-and-under through senior, master’s and open classes for older and more advanced jumpers. Some of the youngest jumpers begin around age 5, Smith says. Once they reach the 14U and get some practice, they’re ready for the K70.
The senior class draws skiers between 20 and 30 years old who are too young to ski in the master’s class, which draws skiers older than 30. The open class is the top level, and these skiers are the best on the hill competing for the most prize money, Smith adds.
The objective of this extreme sport is to jump from the ramp and land as far as possible down the hill below.
“The biggest thing in ski jumping is the farther you go the better,” Smith says. “There are also style points involved, but you’re not going to get good style points unless you go far, because that style needs to be good to go far.”
A skier can earn a maximum of 60 points, as determined by the combined score of five judges. Each judge awards up to 20 points, with the lowest and highest scores thrown out. They watch each skier for three factors: distance, style and their ability to reach or surpass a K-point – where the steepest part of the hill ends and starts to flatten out.
Skiers might be docked on anything from their air flight and arm movements to their landing and how they ski through at the bottom. In a ski jump, the goal is to land with one foot forward and the knees slightly bent, in what’s called a telemark. Points are deducted in half-point increments. Even at a World Cup level, it’s seldom anyone achieves a perfect 20, Smith says.
Ski jumping originated in 1809 in Norway when lieutenant Olaf Rye launched 9.5 meters in the air in front of a group of soldiers, according to USA Nordic, a nonprofit organization that leads the development of ski jumping in the United States. The sport gained momentum nearly 60 years later when Sondre Norheim of Norway jumped 30 meters over a rock. That record stood for three decades and forever cemented Norheim as the “father” of modern ski jumping.
In 1875, the first popularized ski jumping competition took place in Oslo, and 17 years later it was moved to Holmenkollen, a mountain area near Oslo that rises 500 meters above sea level. With a 120-meter jump and a massive spectator capacity, it’s now the apex of ski jumping venues.
“They pack 60,000 to 70,000 people in there,” says Smith, who went there twice as a competitor and twice as a coach. “They use it as a holiday. That week there’s no school; people take off work. It’s that big – it’s just huge.”
Norge traces its inception to 1905, with three Norwegian men in Chicago. After living in the Windy City for some time, they wanted a place to practice ski jumping. They discovered Fox River Grove and set up camp outside of town, on a hill where the Fox River bends. They called the club Norge, which translates to “Norway” in their home tongue.
The three men lived in cottages on the club grounds while they built out their ski jumps. Huge crowds descended on Fox River Grove to see their first tournaments, says Smith, current club president. Photographs inside the main clubhouse capture the club through the decades.
“If you look around some of these old pictures in here, they had 50,000 people out here back in the day,” says Smith, showing off some of the club’s memorabilia. “They’d all come from the city. They’d take the train and come watch the event.”
Norge occasionally took the show to city folk, too. In September 1939, club members constructed a ski jump for competitions at Solider Field, where a ramp descended over the stadium’s famous colonnades. Norge also once rented out Navy Pier and set up a jump for skiers to land in the water. In 1944, the club even built a jump at Wrigley Field.
Today, Norge’s 60 paid club members handle all operations, including organizing annual competitions and overseeing the junior program coaches. During competitions, club members record scores from judges on a computer while others handle the concession stands, buses and other behind-the-scenes operations.
Anyone can apply for membership, but first they must apply to Norge’s financial secretary. Their application card is read out loud at a meeting of club members.
“We like to have that person there at the time to present themselves and explain why they want to be a member,” Smith says. “They start out as a non-voting member for one year, and after a year, if they like being part of those meetings and part of the club, they come back and we vote them in.”
The clubhouse doubles as a gathering space for members and private events. Directly downstairs is the Skier Training Facility where young jumpers store their equipment. There are work benches set up for working on skis, and a training roller jump helps junior skiers to practice their jumping position.
Elsewhere on the club’s property sit a pole barn for storage, concession stands and original cottages that date back to Norge’s founding.
Smith had no idea of the club’s long legacy when a neighbor told him about it in 1970. Just 7 years old at the time, he discovered Norge and set off on a life-changing journey.
Smith became hooked on the sport and made the U.S. Development Team in 1981. He became a Norge board member the following year, and in 1983 he became a member of the U.S. Ski Team, where he spent five years jumping competitively at the highest echelons.
By 1987, Smith was the second highest-ranked jumper in America. He dreamed of making it to the Olympics.
“In 1988, I had a bad year, and the tryouts were over two weekends,” he recalls. “It was a total of four events, with the best three of four counted. At that time, they took seven skiers, and I ended up ninth.”
Little did Smith know his journey to the Olympics was just beginning. The following year, he returned to Norge as a volunteer coach corralling eight youngsters. Outside his day job, Smith spent evenings, weekends and any other time he had on the slopes of Norge. His hard work paid off, and in 1992 Smith coached the U.S. Ski Jumping team at the Olympics in Albertville, France.
“That was neat, to be at the Olympics with opening ceremonies,” Smith says. “That’s the only difference versus a World Cup: all the hoopla with the opening ceremonies, and parades and things like that. But that was a great experience.”
His thirst was slaked – or so he thought – when he left coaching to join his father’s advertising business and earn a more stable living. But he couldn’t stay away from his beloved sport. By the time he became club president in 2006, another bright prospect was coming into his own.
Since 1994, when he was just 5 years old, Michael Glasder had worked with Smith. Born in Lake Forest and raised nearby in Cary, Glasder – like Smith – showed signs of success at an early age. He began jumping at Norge as a 4-year-old, after his parents needed something to keep him busy in the winter. At that time, Norge didn’t have a full-time coach or ski jumping program. The arrival of other young families prompted club leaders to reevaluate.
“That’s when Scott started getting more involved and actually formed the training center,” Glasder says. “He was the first full-time coach we had. I talk to him sometimes daily or weekly now. He’s a major part of not only my career but a ton of athletes who come out of Norge. He was crucial to the success we had.”
Glasder made the U.S. national team in 2009 and traveled the globe, roaming to places like Austria and Slovenia, where he spent five to eight months at a time perfecting his craft.
Glasder had always dreamed of qualifying for the Olympics. He came up short in 2010 – fourth place in a field that accepted three skiers. He fell short again in 2014, when he again landed one rank short. At this point, Glasder was unsure what the future held for him.
“After that, I sat down and I really wasn’t sure what I wanted to do,” he says. “I knew if I stopped now, I would regret it for my entire life. So, I decided to go again and make one more four-year run at it, and it ended up awesome.”
It was a New Year’s Eve to remember when Glasder competed in Park City, Utah – and made the Olympic team.
“It was just like a huge sigh of relief because I’ve been so close for so many years,” he says. “Everybody was screaming, and it was just like, ‘Finally. I did it.’”
Glasder and Smith traveled to PyeongChang, South Korea, for the 2018 Winter Olympics. Glasder finished ninth in team, 32nd in normal hill and 46th in large hill. The following year, Glasder hung up his skis and followed in his mentor’s footsteps. Today, he’s a member of the hill crew, a coach, a volunteer and an advocate at Norge. He coaches alongside Smith and hopes to pass his own legacy onto young skiers.
“I’m there three or four days a week still helping out and trying to get the next generation of kids to where I was,” he says. “Norge is a special place in my heart, and I want to make it like that for the other kids so they can be proud of it, as well.”
Norge has hosted a Winter Ski Jump Tournament every single year since it opened – even during the pandemic.
The event pits Norge jumpers against some of the best jumpers from around the nation. Typically, the national competition draws 8,000 to 10,000 competitors and spectators, who gather below the jumps to watch, cheer and marvel.
This year’s tournament is scheduled for Jan. 28 and 29, from noon to 4 p.m. each day. Saturday’s event features junior skiers on the Junior Small Hills. Intermediate ski jumpers take on the 40-meter jump, followed by the Junior National Qualifier where Olympic hopefuls launch off the towering K70.
The big-thrill action comes Sunday as part of the U.S. Cup Competition. Unique to this event and select others like it, skiers who compete here earn points toward making a national team, Smith says.
“Not all events have that, but ours does,” he adds. “It’s important. It means something for the kids if they want to go to the next level.”
Today, Smith is a man of many hats, serving as club president, coach and operations manager. The successes and near-misses of his career leave him with no regrets. He’s thankful for the ways this sport has inspired his life and that of others.
“This sport has taken me all over the world,” he says. “I lived in Norway one year when I was training. I’ve been to Greece, I’ve been to Japan, all over middle Europe. So, yeah – I missed out making it myself, but I wouldn’t trade anything for where I’ve been in this sport.”