Ski jumping is alive and well in Red Wing, Minn.
A visit to the American Ski Jumping Hall of Fame and Museum
Lori Ann Reinhall
The Norwegian American
If you’ve ever pondered a trip to Red Wing, Minn., your thoughts might have turned to sports. In this quaint little town on the Mississippi River, Red Wing is known as mecca for outdoor activities: you can enjoy a scenic trip on a riverboat, rock climbing, golf, or hiking all on a summer’s day, and in the wintertime, there is cross-county skiing, snowshoeing, and much more.
But perhaps above all, Red Wing is associated with ski jumping, so it may come as no coincidence that the American Ski Jumping Hall of Fame and Museum is located there. It’s a perfect destination for anyone interested in the history of winter sports in the Midwest or Norwegian-American history—and the two are closely intertwined. And the museum is open 52 weeks a year, so you can immerse yourself in the subject matter, come rain or shine—or snow. Located in Red Wing’s historic St. James Hotel, it’s the perfect place to drop in after a lunch or coffee break—and you might even run into a real-life ski-jumping champion there.
Ski jumping in Red Wing
“They drag you in to the board,” said Windsperger, with a smile on his face. “Out of five board members, four of us are ski jumpers,” he said. “The museum is here to recognize the history and legacy of the sport, all those who contributed.”
The origins of ski jumping in Red Wing go back to the 19th century, and the first jumping ramp was built there in 1925. The town hosted first national championships in 1887, and the sport continued to be popular well into the 1960s. One of the young men to start ski jumping in Red Wing was Greg Windsperger, who met me when I arrived at the museum with his colleague Jim Grahek. They both went on to compete on U.S. Olympic teams. and both serve on the board of the museum.
“The museum is also a place for camaraderie,” Grahek said, “a place to share memories.” Ski jumpers share the experience of having been involved in a sport that involves risk-taking and some danger. There can be scary winter weather conditions, and some of the volunteers at the museum have lost friends to the sport. Nonetheless, Windsperger and Grahek agree that all of the danger and risk-taking was worth it for them, and they love the sport.
“You have to remember that ski jumping was a blue-collar sport,” said Windsperger. Back in the day, the initial investment to participate was minimal. While a lift ticket once cost $3, ski-jumping was free. People would even walk the hills to take a jump. And then if you excelled in the sport, ski jumping offered the chance for many young men to get out there and see the world, as they traveled to tournaments, both national and international, as they advanced in the sport. It was a sport that required a little money for basic equipment, strong and well-conditioned physique, some get-up-and-go, practice, and discipline, and some guts.
The two champions explained, however, that the sport is not as dangerous as one might think. “It’s safer than football and ice hockey,” Windsperger said. Yet, during the past 50 years, the sport has seen a decline in the United States, with fewer U.S. jumpers participating in competitions.
There may be some misconceptions in regard to the injury risks, while at the same time recreational skiing and snowboarding are gaining popularity. We live in an a society where many families can afford expensive ski passes, and downhill skiing, also a fun and exciting sport, is more accessible to entire families. Snowboarding also has a certain “thrill” aspect.
But the board and members at the museum in Red Wing don’t want ski jumping to be forgotten, and they would like to see more young people involved again.
History and Hall of Fame
When you tour the exhibits, you will be reminded that ski jumping was, to a large extent, a Norwegian-American sport from the beginning. The legendary Hemmestvedt brothers, Mikkel and Torjus, inmigrated to the Midwest from Telemark in the early 1880s and established the sport in Red Wing. Mikkel set the first reported U.S. distance record at the first Red Wing tournament in 1887, when he flew through the sky at a whopping 37 feet.
At the museum, there is a plethora of vintage photographs and tournament posters, old skis, and other equipment to tell the story. The volunteers are extremely knowledgable as well. Like Windsperger and Grahek, many are former ski jumpers or the spouses of athletes, people with a strong interest in keeping the sport alive.
And then, of course, there is the Hall of Fame to admire, which is core to the mission of the museum.
“There is the U.S. National Ski Hall of Fame in Ishpeming, Minn., but not enough attention is given to the ski jumpers,” Windsperger said. Thus, the Red Wing Museum has the mission to fill the gap, as the ski-jumping champions also deserve this recognition. The museum also sees this as integral in keeping interest in the sport alive.
There is a nomination form for the Hall of Fame on the organization’s website. Once a submission is made, a committee votes according to clearly defined criteria.
Windsperger and Grahek underlined that the Hall of Fame is very meaningful to the inductees,
“They feel honored,” they both said.
To learn more about the American Ski Jumping Hall of Fame and Museum, visit their website at americanskijumping.com.
All photos by Lori Ann Reinhall
This article originally appeared in the January 2023 issue of The Norwegian American.