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Snow or not, Norge Ski Club prepares for 108th tournament

Mark Winick 5th Grader from Lake Forest takes run 10 meter hill during practice Norge Fox River Grove Tuesday January

Mark Winick, a 5th Grader from Lake Forest, takes a run on the 10 meter hill during practice at Norge in Fox River Grove Tuesday, January 15, 2013. The Ski Club is getting ready for their 108th Norge Ski Jump on Jan. 26 - 27. | John Konstantaras~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: February 25, 2013 6:04AM

FOX RIVER GROVE — A clear cold night, and a halogen headlight-bright quarter moon hangs high above a bellowing machine perched at the crest of hill as it works hard to blanket the surface below with snow.

The scene means it’s just about time for one of the Fox Valley’s longest-running winter traditions — the 108th annual Norge Ski Jump Tournament, scheduled for Saturday and Sunday at the Norge Ski Club here.

The club was founded in 1905 by Norwegian immigrants. It is one of the oldest continuously operated ski groups in the country, and today offers a living history of the breathtaking sport.

Coach Scott Smith, 50, of Cary, learned to jump at the age of 7 with the Norge Ski Club, was a member of the U.S. Ski Team in the 1980s, coached for this nation’s team at the 1992 games in Albertville, France, and was inducted into the American Ski Jumping Hall of Fame last summer.

Smith said about 40 youths from tots to teens are taking part in four levels of competition with the Norge Ski Club. Perhaps inspired that women’s ski jumping is an Olympic event for the first time in 2014 in Sochi, Russia, a dozen girls are in the Norge program.

Among them is Jessica Gessner, 13, of Algonquin, whose dad, John, said she had taken to the sport six years ago.

“A neighbor told us about the party atmosphere at the Norge tournament and said it would be right up my alley,” Gessner said. “My wife and I brought the kids, who wanted to try it, and Jessica wound up sticking with it.”

Gessner’s story is similar to the one told by Gene Brown, whose son A.J., now 17, was barely 4 when he hit the hills at Norge. At the Fox River Grove event, the family met Vladimir Hlyvka, a Ukrainian who had competed in ski jumping at the Olympics in 1998 in Nagano, Japan, and in 2002 in Salt Lake City.

Hlyvka wound up moving to the U.S., settling in the Springfield area where he works for a lawn care company, and joining and competing to this day with the Norge Ski Club. Hlyvka gave the toddler A.J. his first pair of Nordic skis back at that tournament more than a dozen years ago, Gene Brown recalled.

Big jump

Of course, beginners don’t head straight off the Norge Ski Club’s biggest jump, a 70-meter hill which stands 160 feet tall. About eight years ago, Norge purchased that tower from the town of Ely, Minn., to replace its aging 60-meter jump. In 2011, the club also rebuilt its 10- and 20-meter jumps. It has five total jumps, and can even be used for jumping in summer.

All of this has been accomplished with the volunteer efforts of Norge’s 100-plus members. Adult members also carry skis for younger jumpers-in-the-making up steps to the tops of the smaller hills — at least until they are big enough to do it for themselves.

And from its own inventory, members also help newbies acquire equipment, which at the top levels can run $2,000 or so for the skis, suit, boots, bindings and helmet, said Guy Larson of Barrington, a vocational coordinator at the Larkin Home in Elgin. His kids Casey, 14, and Cara, 12, take part in the winter sport. Larson also coaches Nordic combine, which involves jumping and cross-country skiing.

The team literally travels across country to competitions in winter-sports-happy places such as Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota, Upstate New York, Utah and Wisconsin.

This year, snow has been hard to find in Wisconsin and even in Colorado earlier in the season, Smith said.

Brown, who serves as the group’s corresponding secretary, said the club always has one eye on the weather, and lack of snow and cold temperatures has had a huge impact on its operation and the training of the ski jumping team.

Brown explained that optimal conditions for making man-made snow are when temperatures are no warmer than the low 20s. At the same time, man-made snow holds up better than natural snow when the temperatures do rise, so a big challenge is making enough when it is cold to get through the milder weather, Brown said.

Volunteer help

While having to make snow affects operational costs, Brown said it has other impacts on the group, too.

“We depend solely on volunteers for everything but our coaching,” Brown said. “So we have to have volunteers who can go out at odd hours to spend the time needed to make snow.”

With last year’s mild winter, the team was only able to use its largest hill two times, and those were during its 2012 tournament. So far, the advanced team has found enough snow to train and compete in other parts of the country. But because of event schedules, it appears the same lack of hometown practice has been true this season, at least up until this week when frigid temperatures hit the area.

Still, the club has found success. Current member Kevin Bickner, 16, of Wauconda, is the 2012 Junior National Champion in his class who has Olympic dreams. Norge alum and Cary native Mike Glasder, 23, is a current member of the U.S. B team, traveling the world over, gliding off mountains.

As for the jumping at the Norge Ski Jump Tournament, the meet will include competitors from across the United States, Canada, Finland and Norway.

The jumping runs noon until 4 p.m. both days, with the advanced competition Sunday. Tickets are $15 at the gate.

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