By Barbara Tetreault
MILAN — If all goes as planned, Olympic ski jumper Sarah Hendrickson will soon descend the take-off ramp at Nansen Ski Jump and, for one shining moment, the glory days of jumping here will return.
Ski jumping was popular in Berlin long before the Nansen Jump was built in 1936-37. The Nansen Ski Club history states skiers were jumping at Paine Hill Ski Jump, built on what is now Eleventh Street, as early as 1906.
In fact the current jump was originally known as "Big Nansen Jump" because the Nansen Ski Club first built a 40-meter jump, which it expanded into a 45-meter hill in 1927.
Roland Pelchat said there were maybe a dozen jumps, largely scattered around the section of the city known as Norwegian Village and Twelve Street. Carl Wright said he started jumping on neighborhood jumps when he was 5 or 6 years old and recalled his father built a small jump for him.
"There were a lot of jumps in people’s backyards," Wright said.
Both men grew up in Berlin and ski jumped from an early age. Pelchat still lives in Berlin while Wight now lives in Maine. Both recalled Dan Paulsen who coached many of the kids as part of the Norsemen Ski Club.
A number of the ski jumps were on land owned by Alf Halvorson, an avid skier and jumper and a tireless promoter of the sport. He was one of the founders of the U.S. Eastern Amateur Ski Association.
An assistant coach for the Olympic Ski Team in 1932, Halvorson’s dream was to bring Olympic ski jumping to Berlin. As district supervisor of the National Youth Administration program during the depression, Halvorson oversaw the building of the current Nansen Ski Jump. The 80-meter jump was the largest ski jump of its day, with a 171.5-foot tower.
The year after opening, the jump hosted the Olympic trials, attracting thousands of spectators as well as a national radio audience. But World War II intervened, and there were no 1940 or 1944 Olympic games.
Scott Halvorson said his grandfather was involved in lots of projects but said the Nansen was probably his proudest accomplishment. He described his grandfather as someone who always had plans and a way of getting things done.
"He did not move fast, but his mind was going a mile a minute," Scott Halvorson said.
Like many youth growing up in Norwegian Village, 93-year old Downing Nelson learned to jump at a young age and was part of his high school ski jumping team, which used the smaller 12th Street jump. In 1941, his high school team won the state championship. He served in World War II and was back living in Berlin after the war when he and a friend, Reggie Batchelder, decided one day to jump off Nansen. The pair walked, carrying their skis from Berlin to the jump to try their luck.
Understandably scared, Nelson said he took off from the starting point about three quarters of the way to the top and missed the take off on his first jump. He went up for a second run. This time, he said he hit the take-off and got halfway down the hill before wiping out.
"The hill got me," he said.
It also broke one of his skis and his jumping days were over. He eventually left the area but returned here to retire.
Jumping at Nansen continued with competitions during the club’s winter festivals. In 1965, Nansen hosted the U.S. National Championships. Competing in the junior class division was Robert Remington, a sophomore at Gould Academy in Bethel, Maine. Remington wrote about his experience at that race in a book he wrote with his brother Tom about their jumping days.
He said he was scheduled as the last junior jumper — an advantage because the track got faster as the day wore on. Jumping ahead of him was Adrian Watt, the eventually winner that day, and behind him was John Balfanz, the reigning senior national champion. Sandwiched between the two, Remington said he figured he would be lucky if the judges noticed him at all. As the three stood at the top in order, Remington said he bent down to buckle his boots and heard an unusual sound.
"I stood erect and twisted around to discover the dynamic duo of Watt and Balfanz retching over the rail at the back of the tower. Any amount of composure that had existed within me being nearly evaporated," he said.
Getting the jump ready for such events was a major undertaking. Wight said his father and as many as 100 to 200 members of the Nansen Ski Club would take two weeks of vacation time to work on the jump before a meet. Pelchat and Wight described how snow would be trucked to the site and a crane would lift the snow into a box so it could be winched up to the in-run and take off. The in-run and the take-off had to be perfect for the safety of jumpers going off at speeds reaching 60 mph. The landing also had to be carefully prepared. Skiers would pack down the hill side-stepping up in their skis.
During competitions, skiers would walk up the hill between jumps and Wight said it could be a treacherous climb carrying a pair of seven-foot long skis. One time, his binding broke as he got to the tower and he had to climb all the way down to get a screwdriver out of car and climb back up.
Mark Emery grew up in Groveton, and his father would take the family watch the jumps in Berlin.
"I said I’m going to go off the jump," Emery said, even though Groveton did not have a ski jumping team.
He eventually joined the jumping team in college and tried out for the 1980 Olympic team. As a competitive skier, he jumped at Nansen in the '70s. Emery said every jump has its own personality and Nansen was known as an older style jump even 40 years ago.
"The hill was old when we were on it," he noted.
The Nansen jump is high where modern jumps are closer to the ground. It also has a very long takeoff with only three starting points. Emery said it is a long ride down from the starting point to the take off.
Technique and equipment have changed since the jump was built in the 1930s and continue to evolve today. In the early days, jumpers had their arms out and skied with their skis straight in front. Now the arms are flat and skis are split in a V formation.
Still, all three former jumpers say not much compares with the thrill of jumping.
"There is nothing like going off a ski jump," Wight said. "It’s a beautiful ride through the air."
As you go off the Nansen jump, Pelchat said, you are immediately hit with a "wall of pressure" that you lean into before you hit a dead zone where you just hang in the air. As you start to drop, if you are lucky, he said, you hit a second wall of pressure that provides the distance jumpers seek.
Wight said someone once described jumping as the closest man can come to flying with the least amount of equipment.
"You get this feeling of flying," he said.
Decades later, Wight said he can still remember everything about his first jump on Nansen.
"That first jump was probably the most exciting day of my life," he said.
"It was a blast," Emery said of his ski jumping days. He said he enjoyed the camaraderie of the jumping community.
Asked if they had some advise for Hendrickson, the trio urged caution.
"Tell her not to try and break a record. It’s a tricky hill," said Pelchat.
Wight warned that the jump is different than what Hendrickson is used to jumping on.
"She has no idea how high in the air that jump is going to send her," he said.
Emery said she will find the take-off long but said Hendrickson has skied bigger hills. He said she should have a fun jump.
For hundreds of people who jumped or watched jumping at Nansen, for one day, history will come alive. Scott Halvorson said no one would be happier than his grandfather to see the jump used again.
"He would be thrilled to death," he said.