'It's like freedom': Competitors, crowd of 8,000+ relish atmosphere at Norge ski jumping event
If your goal is to enjoy Olympic-style competition and flaunt your inner Viking, the annual Norge Winter Ski Jump Tournament in Fox River Grove is just the event for you.
An estimated 8,000 to 10,000 spectators mounted the hilly road to the Norge Ski Club this weekend to experience the 117th edition of the competition.
Attendees had a blast, some literally, as they blew alphorns, rang cowbells and donned Viking hats while watching skiers slide down the 70-meter ski jump, then soar through the air.
The parking lot was packed with tailgaters grilling, sipping brews and sending up a piney aroma from burning logs.
"It's nice to be able to get out here around people in the winter and be outside," said spectator M.J. Kennedy of Hoffman Estates. "It's like a picnic."
But Kennedy also was there for the competition.
"It's exciting to watch these kids do something they're passionate about," she said.
Another tailgater, Jeff Lane of Hoffman Estates, entered into the spirit of the event by sporting a Viking hat that his friend bought on Amazon.
"We love the European vibe (of the event). This is kind of like the original X-Games," he said. "As soon as this year's over, I'm looking forward to the next."
One of the jumpers, 15-year-old Isak Nichols of North Barrington, discussed his passion for the sport he's been a part of since he was 4 years old.
"It's like freedom," he said. "You take off and you fly through the air like a bird."
"This is my home hill. So this crowd is always amazing to see," added Isak's brother, 20-year-old Lucas Nichols.
Another jumper, 16-year-old Adeline Swanson of Woodbury, Minnesota, said she feeds off the spectators' energy.
"You kind of feel the roar of the crowd in your chest and it just gets the adrenaline pumping," she said.
Those spectators not only enjoyed the competition but also the food. Michelle Bruno of Sleepy Hollow was among many who savored a cheese stick, corn dog and meatball speared kabob-style and soaked in a Bloody Mary.
She stood with her husband, Frank, her friend, Barrington resident Lana Zenner, and Lana's husband, Jim, in a prime spot.
"The jumping is amazing. (This is) coming from somebody who is afraid of heights," Lana Zenner said.
Norge Ski Training Center Chairman Guy Larson said the publicity surrounding the upcoming Winter Olympics and the favorable weather led to the weekend's competition being one of the biggest events the organization has held.
Norge is sending three Olympians to Beijing, including Larson's son, Casey, Kevin Bickner and Patrick Gasienica.
It is Casey's second Olympics.
"He's very excited again to represent the U.S.," Guy Larson said. "He's in real good spirits. The team's doing well and we hope to have some nice results."
So what is Norge's secret?
"It's really our program," he said. "We have developed a true high-level sports program here to teach ski jumping. We have great coaching and great facilities. And we have a great population base. We get kids who want to come out and try. And some really find the passion for it and will continue on and compete."