Sister ski jumpers took leap into sport, will compete at Norge this weekend – Chicago Tribune
Carrie Krueger took one look at the giant wooden ski jump near her home in the Chicago suburbs and said, “What kind of parent would let their kid on that?”
Her kid, Hope, had a different reaction. She was enthralled by the children she saw leaping off the jump and soaring through the air. “I saw it and I realized, this is my sport,” she said. “I can do this.”
As an African-American who faced serious health problems at birth, was given up by her birth parents and whose adoptive family had no connection to the traditionally Nordic and male-dominated sport, Hope Krueger is not a typical ski jumper.
But at age 13, Hope represents the latest generation of athletes pursuing Olympic dreams in an often-forgotten sport.
She’s trying to qualify for Fly Girls, a feeder program to the U.S. national team. And this weekend, when Hope jumps as part of the International Winter Tournament at the Norge Ski Club in far northwest suburban Fox River Grove, she’ll become part of a 112-year-old tradition that has produced three members of the current men’s national team and the women’s junior national champion.
The Norge tournament, held annually on a hilltop tower more than 150 feet tall, gained some rare publicity last month when warm weather forced it to be postponed for the first time in its history.
Now, despite a lack of snowfall and temperatures forecast in the 40s this weekend, club members have been working day and night to make and haul enough snow onto the jump to go on with the show Saturday and Sunday. Thousands of spectators are expected.
Hope and her 12-year-old sister, Raya, who also jumps, defied desperate beginnings to make it this far in the sport. Both were adopted shortly after birth by the Kruegers: Brian, a firefighter, and Carrie, a former police officer.
In their jobs, the couple had come across children with a great need for foster parents, and decided that they could take that role temporarily. Once they began taking care of children, they realized they wanted to keep them. They now have two birth children and five adopted children in their home in the tiny suburb of Trout Valley, downriver from the ski club.
Hope was born a month prematurely, weighing 4 pounds, 4 ounces, had bowlegs and suffered a possible stroke in utero. She didn’t start walking until relatively late, at 17 months.
But she has blossomed into a natural athlete, teaching herself to do back handsprings and flips by watching her hero, Olympic gold medal gymnast Simone Biles, also an African-American who was adopted. Hope learned to ski at an early age with her family, loves speed and has no fear of heights, so ski jumping came naturally when she started four years ago. She is now the top jumper in the girls under-14 Central Division, which covers four Midwestern states.
Raya followed her sister into the sport two years ago, and the pair travel with their mother to weekend competitions at ski clubs around the Midwest. They compete at an intermediate level, having graduated from the small beginner jumps to 25 and 40 meters. Though the lack of snow this winter has slowed her development, Hope has started jumping 60 meters, and her coach says she is ready for the big 70-meter jump at Norge.
The tower stands high enough to see the Chicago skyline, with a drop as steep as a roller coaster, and is enough to give some visitors vertigo.
Along with about 40 teammates at Norge, age 5 to mid-20s, the sisters keep jumping in the summer on plastic landing surfaces, and train to develop strength, flexibility and endurance. Technique is a huge part of the sport, as skiers must jump just at the point of liftoff, then spread their skis and tip them up to catch the wind and sail as far as they can.
During a recent conversation at her house, Raya demonstrated her form by leaping face first into a beanbag. Slightly taller than her sister, “Ray-dog” serves as Hope’s protector, on the lookout for anyone who might be giving her a hard time. As a jumper, she especially relishes the tournaments. “I like how there’s a crowd and they’re very loud,” Raya said. “That just gives me more confidence.”
For role models, the girls need look no further than their own ski club. Norge was the training ground for three of the four members of the USA Ski Jumping team: Kevin Bickner, Casey Larson and 2015 men’s national champion Mike Glasder.
In addition, Norge produced Larson’s 16-year-old sister, Cara, a two-time junior national champion who went through the first Fly Girls program, and plans to jump at Norge this weekend.
Despite the warm winter, Norge coaches and volunteers took advantage of the midweek cold snap to use snow machines to spray a mound of snow at the bottom of the main 70-meter jump. Volunteers used a cart and pulley to raise the snow onto the jump and then spread it by hand and packed it down with their skis.
While downhill skiers prefer soft powder, jumpers prefer a harder surface for jumping and landing, so they don’t get bogged down in slush and wipe out. Organizers said it’s now or never to hold the tournament this weekend, because subsequent competitions are already scheduled.
From its heyday in the first half the 20th century, ski jumping has fallen on hard times. Into the 1950s, the sport had close to 100 clubs nationally, but after decades of declines, now there is about a third of that, according to an estimate by the sport’s overseeing organization, USA Nordic. Ski jumping further fell in popularity after the NCAA dropped it as a championship event in 1980, and the U.S. has won only one Olympic medal in the history of the sport, in 1924.
And some fans say its image was hurt by a catastrophic ski jump wipeout that was featured for decades to represent “the agony of defeat” in the introduction to “ABC’s Wide World of Sports.”
In recent years, snowboarding and freestyle skiing have eclipsed the sport among young skiers.
But USA Nordic is expanding its outreach to young athletes and reports that some clubs are expanding their membership. The group estimates that 700 to 800 people participate in the sport nationwide.
And starting with the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, women’s ski jumping is now an Olympic sport.
“That was huge,” USA Nordic development director Jed Hinkley said. “It did a ton for the sport. Now young girls have more of a goal to aspire to.”