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Copper Peak ski jump poised to rejoin world stage

U.S. athlete Jim Holland starts his run down the 469-foot slide at Copper Peak near Ironwood, Mich., during a ski flying competition in January 1994. The venue has not hosted a competition since 1994. (News Tribune file photo)1 / 2
The Copper Peak ski jump stands atop a bluff near Ironwood, Mich., not far from Lake Superior. Supporters of the jump are working to bring international competition back to the venue. (Photo courtesy of Copper Peak) 2 / 2

Optimism is soaring high among supporters of the landmark Copper Peak ski jump near Ironwood, Mich., after they secured backing this month to host international competitions starting in 2017 -- what would be the first jumping events at the venue since 1994.

Now, organizers have to stick the landing by completing the fundraising and site work required to host elite athletes from around the world.

"We are closer now than we've ever been," said Charlie Supercynski, chairman of the Copper Peak board. "That's a monumental place out there, and it's taken a long time to get it back in shape and get it to the point where we can go to the next step -- and that's where we're at. The groundwork has been done, and now we're moving forward and working on the competition. It's exciting times for the area."

The Copper Peak board has been trying to bring back competition for years -- in winter as well as in summer, as the planned installation of an artificial landing surface would open the venue to year-round jumping, an increasingly popular aspect of the sport in the past couple decades.

This latest effort has advanced further than past tries in part, organizers say, because ski jumping's international governing body now is making a push to raise the sport's stature in North America.

Ski jumping has a long history in the U.S. -- including in Duluth and northern Minnesota -- but its interest and popularity in the U.S. has lagged far behind Europe in recent decades.

But in an interview posted earlier this month on the Federation of International Skiing website, Walter Hofer -- the FIS race director for ski jumping and a towering figure in the sport -- said that a focus in "the next five to six years (will be) re-establishing the sport in North America. This is a core region to where we want to return with events on the highest level."

Copper Peak backers intend to be a part of that plan.

"We both want to make this happen. It's good for their sport and it's great for our community and our state and our region," said Bob Jacquart, chairman of the Copper Peak organizing committee for the events in 2017 and beyond. "We've always been fighting to get in there, but now they need us to some level. For the first time in a long time, ski jumping in North America is great for the international sport."

Copper Peak background

Copper Peak opened in 1970. It includes a 267-foot-tall steel jump structure -- that's about 26 stories high -- built atop a 365-foot-high rock outcropping about 10 miles northeast of Ironwood.

Its size makes it a "ski flying" hill -- the only one in the Western Hemisphere and one of just six in the world. Ski flying is similar to ski jumping but takes place on larger hills that allow for longer jumps.

Copper Peak hosted 10 competitions between 1970 and 1994; since 1994 it has not hosted ski jumpers, but has remained open in the summer as a tourist attraction, drawing visitors who venture to the top of the jump for the views. Volunteers have maintained the site and its infrastructure.

Plans for 2017

FIS and Copper Peak officials have been talking for several years; an FIS delegation visited the site in 2013.

Progress started picking up as Jacquart and Hofer met at FIS meetings in April, and the Copper Peak board hired Tunheim -- a Minnesota-based consulting firm with extensive sports event experience -- to manage its bid with FIS.

Hofer then visited Copper Peak in July, at which time Jacquart invited business leaders, political leaders and tourism officials from both Michigan and Wisconsin to meet with the FIS official.

"(I was) hoping for 30 and got 107," Jacquart recalled of the turnout. "Walter could get a feel of the breadth of cooperation and excitement that we had, and that pretty much flipped him. Then he said, 'OK, now you need to come back in October (and) present in front of the whole (FIS) committee.'"

At the October meetings in Switzerland, FIS awarded Copper Peak a Ski Jumping Grand Prix event slated for September 2017; the Grand Prix is the world's top summer ski jumping series that draws big crowds in Europe and millions of TV viewers. FIS also granted Copper Peak a Continental Cup summer event -- Continental Cup is a step below the elite Grand Prix -- and a Nordic combined summer event, tentatively set for the 2018 season.

Looking beyond that, Copper Peak's supporters would like to host winter events, including a spot in the biennial cycle of FIS Ski Flying World Championships.

"This unique site, combined with the commitment shown by Copper Peak's board and the larger community, make it a perfect host for our Grand Prix and Nordic events, and a strong contender for additional upcoming competitions," Hofer said in a news release.

FIS also gave Copper Peak an exemption to allow the installation of an artificial landing surface on a ski flying hill; it would be the only ski flying hill able to host summer events.

Summer ski jumping

In summer ski jumping competitions, the track or "inrun" is outfitted with a refrigerated ceramic surface that jumpers glide down.

The landing area is coated in plastic bristles -- somewhat like a thatched grass roof, Jacquart said -- that are watered down and approximate snow.

Copper Peak will need to come up with a plan and the money to add that infrastructure, among other changes, so that its place on the 2017 event calendar can be locked in at meetings next April.

Jacquart declined to reveal the budget for those improvements, but said it will take a lot of work to raise the money. Business and sustainability plans will be completed in the coming weeks, he said, with official fundraising to begin after that.

Jacquart and Supercynski said there is optimism about meeting fundraising goals; a feasibility study concluded that organizers had a 96 percent chance of raising the required money.

"Obviously there are no guarantees along the way, but every sign that we have is very hopeful and very positive," Supercynski said.

This week, consultants with Olympic-level experience in designing ski jumping venues and running events will visit Copper Peak to assess the facility and share their expertise. If all goes as planned, work would take place in the summers of 2016 and 2017, ahead of the September 2017 Grand Prix event.

The economic benefits of such an event would extend not just to the western Upper Peninsula, Jacquart said, but also to northern Wisconsin and perhaps even Duluth because it's home to one of the closest major airports to the venue.

Long road

Copper Peak's volunteers have dedicated time, money and energy to the venue for years "all under the hope that there would be ski jumping coming back," Jacquart said. "If it wasn't for them keeping this thing alive and keeping the hill and the inrun and the chairlift and the elevator in good shape, there would have been nothing even to start with."

Supercynski played a role in the first event held at Copper Peak in 1970; he was working at the local community college and developed a timing unit to measure inrun speeds. He's been more heavily involved in efforts to revitalize the venue since about 2002.

"I've always personally felt that this site was so much bigger than me, bigger than the community. It was worthy of any effort that I could provide to make sure that this facility would not fall by the wayside," he said. "It's taken a long time to convince some people, but we've reached that point where a lot of people see the potential of what this site can be. ... I ran into a lot of naysayers a while back, but more and more of them are coming around. The vision was always there."

More information

Copper Peak: www.facebook.com/copperpeak

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