Northwest legend Ragnar Ulland still flying high
From Kongsberg to Seattle to the Pacific Northwest Ski Jumping Hall of Fame
Business & Sports Editor
The Norwegian American
Ragnar Ulland didn’t have a choice of sport when he was young, even if it meant flying in the air. When you grow up in Kongsberg, Norway, you ski jump. The starting point for numerous world-class jumpers, its most famous favorite sons were the Ruud brothers, Birger, Sigmund, and Asbjørn, who dominated ski jumping in the 1920s and 1930s. Ulland’s father and six uncles were all championship jumpers.
At the conclusion of a storm, teenagers would spill out onto the steep streets or slopes and hand pack the snow into jumps. They would then jump until dark. There was also a Kongsberg technique that became popular, which looks much different than today’s style. Ragnar, who was recently inducted into the Pacific Northwest Ski Jumping Hall of Fame, has fond memories of his days in Kongsberg.
“Fortunately, I was part of family of several guys who were involved in ski jumping in Kongsberg,” Ulland said in a May 2021 interview for the National Nordic Museum in Seattle. “Of course, I didn’t have a choice coming from the town which was so well known for ski jumping. I started out about age 5 or 6 roaming around the farm fields outside Kongsberg. As I got older, we had a lot of rock fences scattered all the way around the farm fields. We built little take-offs on those rock fences and started jumping. Jumped probably 10 to 20 feet at 6, 7 years of age. I started jumping in the regular junior ski-jumping championships at age 11.”
By that time, he was jumping 100 feet.
Ulland came to the United States in 1951, when he was 14. An uncle was supposed to immigrate to Seattle in 1947. Uncle Olav, who was already in the United States, was the sponsor. Before the Kongsberg uncle could leave, he became ill and died. Ragnar’s father transferred the ticket to himself.
“I was still in grade school and my father wanted me to finish school in Norway,” said Ulland. “He left me behind with my aunt and uncle. In 1951, my dad decided to bring me over to the United States and I’ve been here ever since.”
When he arrived in Seattle, he found he was in the center of ski jumping in the United States. Norwegian immigrants wanted to maintain their ethnic culture and that included their sport culture. They started the Seattle Ski Club in 1929, Leavenworth Winter Sports Club in 1928, and the Cascade Ski Club in Portland, Ore., in 1929. Before the creation of the clubs, ski-jumping competitions were taking place. The Cle Elum Ski Club held tournaments from 1924–1933 in front of 3,000-5,000 spectators—mostly Scandinavians. Some of the ramps built rivaled those in Norway.
Ulland joined the Seattle Ski Club. In his first season, he won five competitions in the Pacific Northwest.
By the time he was 16, Ragnar was jumping in Class A and placing second in tournaments, including beating Uncle Olav. In 1955, he won the National Junior Championship at Leavenworth with a record jump of 284 feet. As an 18-year-old senior at Roosevelt High School, he qualified for the 1956 U.S. Olympic team in Cortina, Italy, the youngest member of the team ever. While practicing at Cortina, he fell, hurt his lower back, and never got to jump at the Olympics. In 1958, he jumped 283 feet and finished third in Northwest Championships at Leavenworth, and set a hill record at Mt. Hood of 224 feet.
Ragnar had perfected the Torpedo technique, which had been developed by Koba Tsakadze in Georgia in the former Soviet Union. While shepherding sheep, he noticed that eagles honed in on their prey by leaning “their head forward with wings tight alongside their body.” He copied the form for ski jumping “leaning forward out over his skis while keeping his arms down.” It became standard.
Competing in the tournaments was as much social as competitive.
“When I first came, all of us were members of the Seattle Ski Club, which was located at Snoqualmie Pass,” Ulland recalled. “We spent a lot of weekends sleeping overnight in the cabin and jumping on the hill that was close by and the bigger hills at Beaver Lake. In 1954, we started the Kongsbergers Club after my hometown. We built a ski jump at Cabin Creek and had a cabin. It turned out fantastic. We really enjoyed it.
“I got so worked up about the forthcoming tournament and there was a lot of stiff competition. Most athletes get competition nervousness. Still, we were very excited to take off wherever we went. We would meet at somebody’s place and carpool to the area. At the site, we usually had a pre-tournament party the day before, met all our fellow competitors, and really enjoyed ourselves.”
This article originally appeared in the January 2023 issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.