Ski jumps that launched Olympians come tumbling down

A demolition excavator pulls apart the jump.
A demolition excavator pulls apart the spindly steel legs of the Little Chester ski jump in Duluth on August 18, 2014. The jump was built in 1969, and served as one of the training ramps for a generation of world class ski jumpers from Duluth. The city says it would have cost about $1 million to restore the jump and another, taller ramp nearby. (Dan Kraker / MPR News)
Dan Kraker / MPR News

George Hovland will never forget the first time he scaled a ski jump at the Chester Bowl park.

At 11, Hovland climbed one of the towering jumps with a group of friends, skis in hand. Terrified and exhilarated, he prepared for a descent that would launch him on the ride of a lifetime — all the way to the 1952 Winter Olympics.

"It was one of these things — 'John, you go first; no, you go first; no, you go first,'" he recalled. "We finally convinced, by actually muscling him over, and pushed him down, and he survived, and so the rest of us thought well if he can, we can."

On Sunday, Hovland, 88, trudged one last time up a long flight of now-dilapidated wooden steps. He wanted one more close-up view of the ski jumps before demolition crews took the towering pieces of Duluth's history down this week.

Former Olympic skier George Hovland
Former Olympic skier George Hovland stands in front of the ski jump known as Little Chester in Duluth on August 17, 2014, the day before it was torn down.
Dan Kraker / MPR News

• Photos: Minnesota's ski jumping history

The two ski jumps, built in 1924 and 1969, served as early training ramps for a generation of Olympic ski jumpers. But they haven't been used for nearly a decade as children exchanged their jumping skis for snowboards and other pastimes.

"The best way I can convey my feeling is outrage and [sadness]," said Hovland, who was part of a remarkable run of Olympians who got their start at Chester Bowl. "It's like losing an old friend."

Steps leading up to the Little Chester ski jump
A long flight of rickety wooden steps, shown here on August 17, 2014, led to the Little Chester ski jump at Chester Bowl park in Duluth. The jump was torn down the following day by the city because of safety concerns.
Dan Kraker / MPR News

In the 1952 Olympics he competed in the Nordic Combined, an event that couples ski jumping with cross-country skiing.

On Monday, an excavator pulled apart the spindly steel legs and wooden boards of the ski jump known as Little Chester.

Duluth community relations officer Paula Reed said she understands the emotional connection many in Duluth feel to the jump, along with the ramp known as Big Chester next to it. But she said leaving them standing would have been too big a risk.

The city removed the lower parts of the jumps three years ago, she said, but daredevils would still climb them.

"I do think that liability is one of the biggest issues, because yes, the city would be held liable," Reed said. "And I guess we're at the point where we don't want to wait until something like that happens, because then somebody would say, 'why didn't you do something sooner?'"

Historical Chester Bowl photo
A Chester Bowl ski team from the 1920s.
Courtesy the CBIC

Hovland wishes the city would have installed a security fence around one of the jumps and kept it standing. He argues the jumps were more stable than the city acknowledged.

Reed, however, said a 2012 study found the jumps were not structurally sound, and it would have cost about $1 million to restore them.

"We're erring on the side of caution," she said. "We're doing something we know is not incredibly popular, but I think it is the best decision at this particular time in this particular situation."

Duluth's ski jumps haven't been used in competition since 2005, long after Hovland and his friends scaled them.

They also bring back fond memories for Greg Swor, who grew up nearby in the 1950s and '60s.

"When I was young, there was a waiting line to go down the ski jumps, especially on a weekend," said Swor, who at 6 made his first jump.

Historical Chester Bowl photo
Duluthians gather to dedicate a new steel slide at Chester Bowl in January 1926.
Courtesy the CBIC

"You're bullet proof when you're six or seven," he said. "You have no fear; you haven't gotten hurt yet."

Swor went on to suffer a host of what he calls "weird injuries" during a decorated jumping career. He became a national champion jumper, and placed 30th at the 1972 Olympic Games. "I had my knee operated on when I was 14," he recalled. "I broke my neck, bruised my spleen, sprained ankles, busted ribs, broke my nose, all my fingers, hyperextended both my elbows."

But every bit of it was worth it, insists Swor, who remembers carrying 100-pound "Arco Coffee" gunny sacks full of snow up the jumps to pack down on the ramps.

Swor said Duluth ski jumpers competed in six consecutive Olympics, from 1960 to 1980 — and the Chester Bowl played a big part in their success.

"It was the culture, it was the support we got from the older guys who came out and coached us," he said. "It was the number of rides we were able to take."

A skier glides past an old ski jump
A skier glides past an old ski jump Monday, December 23, 2013 at Chester Bowl in Duluth, Minn.
Derek Montgomery / For MPR News

But despite that rich history, Swor doesn't romanticize the rickety ramps at his old jumping grounds.

"They're a liability. Put up a monument, put up whatever you want, but they're serving no purpose," he said. "The boards on Big Chester were probably put up in 1963. Somebody's going to get killed."

The city is saving parts of the torn down jumps to include in some kind of memorial to Duluth's ski flying past.

But Hovland, the former jumper, is saddened that they will no longer be part of Duluth's present, hovering over the trees along the city's ridgeline.

"It's such an iconic structure; it's a part of Duluth," he said. "It's not just a part of the history of Duluth, but it's still a part of it."

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