Minnesota Memories: Diving and jumping — athletics, Duluth-styleIn the east end of Duluth, near 61st Avenue and Superior Street, is Lester Park, with a beautiful, winding river, large boulders and deep pools of water ideal for swimming and diving. Then we lived in a big, two-story house at 1105 N. 51st Ave. E.
By: Paul Slayback, for the News Tribune
In the east end of Duluth, near 61st Avenue and Superior Street, is Lester Park, with a beautiful, winding river, large boulders and deep pools of water ideal for swimming and diving. Then we lived in a big, two-story house at 1105 N. 51st Ave. E.
I became a regular swimmer in the park and was introduced to a “condition” of admittance: swimming naked. Older boys, 13- to 15-year-olds, imposed the rule and it was strictly enforced.
Swimming nude at the YMCA was one thing. Out in the open, where everyone can see you, was another matter. But all the boys were naked. I wanted to swim; why not me? I joined and soon got used to the freedom of swimming in the nude. It was not just the swimming that I enjoyed — it was the diving.
Overlooking the deep pools of water and massive boulders were steep cliffs. On the edge of the cliffs were small ledges we used as platforms to dive 15 to 20 feet to the wide pools of water below.
I felt special, like I belonged to a select club. Around town, my friends and I would run into one of these older boys who would say something like, “Hey, how’s the high diver?” that impressed my other 10-year-old buddies.
In the winter of 1948 at Chester Bowl, I started jumping on small, 3- to 5-foot jumps made of snow, tumbling, sliding and falling to the ground. My friends were happy skiing down the hill, making an occasional jump and having a good time. I concentrated on jumping.
I watched older boys in green jackets with Duluth Nordic Ski Club in black — the elite group of Alpine jumpers in the Bowl.
One of them, Karl, gave me pointers on my jumping technique. Karl was about 18 years old, 5 foot 10, 150 pounds, square-jawed, a different girl each week. His movements on snow were solid and graceful, like the landing of a Canada goose —controlled, precise, smooth. I still see him, a handsome, laughing master of the slopes.
Aided by Karl’s advice, my mistakes lessened, disappeared, and my jumping distance increased.
One day Karl asked, “How old are you?”
“Ten,” I replied.
“I’ve never seen a 10-year-old jump like you,” he said, smiling. “To get any better, you’ve got to get yourself some skis with proper bindings.”
The club jumpers all had special ski boots and skis with bindings to help secure their boots to their skis. I had a $5 pair of used Sears Roebuck skis without any bindings, galoshes with buckles, a single leather strap over each ski. On some of my jumps, my skis slipped out of the strap and I had to chase them down the hill.
Using a pair of my sister Lorna’s sewing scissors, I made my own set of bindings from an old bicycle inner-tube. I cut out two circular strips about 6 inches long. I slid one rubber strip over each ankle and stepped into my skis. I pulled the strips forward over the toe of each boot. Presto! A poor boy’s bindings. After school and every weekend I jumped ... and jumped. I improved each week.
One December morning, 1948, Karl said, “Clarence, I think you’re good enough to try the big jump.”
“Think so?” I asked. I had been watching the jumpers on the big jumps for several weeks. There were two big jumps in the park. One, about 35 meters high and 88 meters long. The other, a real monster — 50 meters high and 100 meters long. Both looked scary but the kind of challenge I liked. I chose the smaller jump.
Hoisting my skis over my shoulder, I climbed the 175 steps to the top. Looking down the chute, I felt like I was on the edge of a cliff. The wind almost knocked me down. Watching my balance, I bent down and fastened my home-made bindings. My heart beat faster, all my senses heightened. I believed in myself. I saw a successful jump. I couldn’t hesitate. “I can do this,” I said to myself.
Looking out over the mountain, I took a deep breath, placed each ski in the narrow, 16-inch-wide cut-outs of the chute, flexed my knees, focused my thoughts and pushed off. Waxed skis slipping down icy tracks, aided by gravity, my speed increased from 0 to 30 mph in seven seconds as I shot out the end of the chute 6 feet off the ground and catapulted into space over the side of the mountain. A strong gush of wind struck my face, buffeted the bottom of my skis and pushed my body sideways.
In the air, I was weightless, floating like a glider plane. To gain distance, as Karl suggested, I straightened my legs and shifted my weight forward riding the air currents, realigned my skis, and focused on my landing spot. As my skis touched down, I bent my knees slightly, landing on my feet over 70 feet down the slope.
Karl yelled, “Great jump!”
For several weeks I jumped on this junior jump, improving my style and distance. Then, again at Karl’s suggestion, I tried the monster jump, the jump most club members and Olympic hopefuls practiced on. After numerous falls and minor disasters, I improved enough that I seldom fell. I concentrated on increasing my distance.
Karl coached me, “Don’t think about all the mechanics of jumping. “Imagine you are flying on a magic carpet ... flying high and far ... and landing softly on the slope, like a snowflake.”
Karl, Henrich, Michel and a few other club members encouraged me to enter a ski-jumping contest in the park. I couldn’t afford the $3.00 entry but Michel, a French-Canadian competitor, Karl, Henrich and Michel put their money together and paid my entry fee.
On the first day of competition, I remember climbing up the numerous steps to the top of the departure chute.
“Hey,” said the judge who started each jumper down the ski-jump, “you can’t jump with those rubber things on, you need regulation bindings —this is a hard, competitive jump, it’s dangerous —you could get hurt or killed if you land wrong.”
A tear rolled down my cheek when Heinrich, the next competitor in line, said, “It’s OK, Clarence. Judge, this kid has made this jump over a hundred times without any problem. He’s been trained by us — let him jump.”
After a little discussion between the two adults, I was allowed to jump. I was 10 years old and jumped 88 feet, winning my age group (13 and under) and setting a record that lasted for many years.
Years later, my sister Lorna told me that dad and his girlfriend, Mrs. Peterson, had seen me jump in some of the competitions and my dad “almost had a heart attack” when he saw me jumping from the big jump. Mrs. Peterson called his attention to me moving down the chute by pointing out my red stocking cap with a yellow tassel on top. She said my dad often bragged about my skiing abilities, carrying a newspaper article about my skiing around to show his friends. He never once mentioned that to me. She said some man from the ski club had talked with my dad several times and told him that I had “great talent and potential” and the club members wanted me to be apart of their skiing club. But participation involved money and travel and my Dad said he couldn’t afford it.
The next summer we moved to a new address in Duluth. I never jumped competitively again.
Wednesday: Risking my life in Duluth’s Bowery