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Michigan's Long History of Ski Jumping

By Vivian M. Baulch / The Detroit News

Skiing quite possibly is the oldest sport known to man. (Picture a clever caveman tying some old mastadon ribs to his feet and scooting around the mountains.)  Since the dawn of history, northern Europeans have looked on skiing as more efficient than walking. A museum in Stockholm, Sweden, claims to have a pair of skis that may be 5,000 years old. In the Middle Ages, armies proficient in the art of skiing controlled snow-covered areas of Europe.

As skiing developed into a leisure-time activity, categories such as alpine and nordic skiing evolved. But the most spectacular forms of skiing clearly are ski jumping and ski flying, thrilling not only to the jumper but to those spectators who brave the cold to marvel at the sight. During the 1870s and 1880s the first ski-jumping tournaments in the country were held in Ishpeming, a tiny Michigan mining community near Lake Superior. Renegade skiiers seeking even greater thrills developed what became known as ski flying.

In ski jumping, the jumper follows the curve of the hill, usually no more than 10 feet off the ground, while fliers aim for much greater heights and distances. The sport is considered so dangerous that ski jumping is a male-only sport in the Olympic games and ski flying is not recognized at all.

In February, 1904, a number of Midwest ski clubs banded together to form the National Ski Association. The organization scheduled the first National Ski Tournament in Ishpeming, which had formed its own ski club in 1887. The national association claimed 17 charter members, all from the Midwest. In that first tournament, Michigan's Thomas Walters claimed the world record jump of 82 feet.

Other Michiganians would make their mark on the sport, including the Hall brothers, Carl, Clarence and Henry, native Ishpemingers, who learned the sport using barrel staves as skis (no mastadon ribs being available).  Another Ishpeminger, Jumpin' Joe Perreault, in a 1949 meet, outjumped the world champion, Peter Hugsted of Norway, and Finland's Matti Pietikinen, who became champion the following year. Perreault was inducted into the Ski Hall of Fame in 1971 at age 46.


Joseph "Jumpin' Joe" Perreault of Ishpeming outjumped present and future champions at a meet in 1949.

 In 1955, the Olympic team ski jump trials and the U.S. Jumping Championship were held at the Pine Mountain Ski-Jump at Iron Mountain.

The Pine Mountain scaffold in 1955 was 328 feet long and 156 feet high, the tallest man-made ski jump in the world. It had a 632-foot landing hill, making a total run of nearly 1,000 feet. There was a vertical drop of 415 feet from the end of the scaffold to the end of the landing hill.

The Bietila family of Ishpeming produced the Flying Bietila Brothers, including three-time U.S. Olympian Walter Bietila and his brothers Roy, Ralph, Paul, Leonard and Jackie. Paul, acknowledged as the best U.S. jumper of his time, was hurt in a 1939 ski accident and diedfrom pneaumonia a few weeks later at age 20. Paul was posthumously inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1970. Walter Bietila coached the U.S. jumping team in 1962. Gary Rasmussen of Negaunee, son of 1950s-era Olympic skier and Ski Hall of Famer Wilbert Rasmussen, considers ski jumping to be safer than alpine skiing.

Rasmussen promotes the sport for youngsters and says, "Every practice jump is as important as any jump you'll ever make. You have to get pumped up all the time. I don't feel there is any difference between competition and practice. If the jumper is not serious every ride, then that's when you run into problems."

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