George Hovland recalls ski-jumping in Sweden with the U.S. Nordic Combined Olympic ski team just before the Winter Games in Oslo, Norway. The year was 1952. He was one of eight athletes selected for the combined ski-jumping and cross-country skiing competition.
With equal clarity, Duluth's Hovland, 89, remembers never jumping once the team got to Oslo for the Olympics.
"When we got to Sweden a couple of weeks before the games, we had practice for skiing and jumping," Hovland said. "When the team directors saw me jump, they made a wise decision, which probably saved my life. The director said, 'We've never had a fatality on the ski team yet, and we aren't going to start now.'"
Hovland stuck to cross-country skiing in Olympic competition. He will be recognized for a much wider spectrum of talents this Sunday when the Duluth Cross-Country Ski Club makes him the first recipient of its George Hovland Award, given to an individual for a lifetime of commitment and service to cross-country skiing in the Duluth area. The club's Snow Ball Gala will be held at 5 p.m. Sunday at Norway Hall.
Hovland, an outstanding cross-country and downhill skier, has left an indelible mark on Duluth's skiing scene over the past 70 years. He has been instrumental in the development of local cross-country ski trails, including those at Hartley Park, Spirit Mountain and his own Snowflake Nordic ski center, which he opened in 1993.
The center is still in operation under a management team after Hovland sold the property last year for eventual development, in part for a new high school for Duluth Edison Charter Schools.
While perhaps best known for his focus on cross-country skiing, Hovland's influence in the skiing community goes far beyond that.
Shortly after his return from the 1952 Olympics, Hovland opened Duluth's first specialty ski shop. He conceived the idea that became Duluth's Spirit Mountain downhill ski area. That was somewhat after he developed Duluth's first ski hill, a rope-tow operation above Kenwood Avenue called "Ski Kenwood." Hovland also was instrumental in developing downhill skiing at Chester Bowl, and he co-owned the Mont du Lac ski area for a time.
An intense competitor, Hovland has skied the American Birkebeiner ski marathon 33 times, often winning his age group. He skied it most recently in 2012 at age 85. He stopped near the race's halfway point to take a short nap, he said.
"George has been a constant the last 50 years, advocating for and ensuring that cross-country skiing remains a robust part of Duluthians' lives," said Chad Salmela, a board member of the Duluth Cross-Country Ski Club. "The lifelong love of skiing, life experiences, friendships and healthy lives that have been developed by George's efforts are immeasurable."
Hovland's vision in building Snowflake and creating its ski trails has made a big difference, especially for young skiers, said Dave Johnson, Marshall School teacher and cross-country ski coach.
"The word that would describe him is transformative," Johnson said. "He transformed the opportunities for kids. It was as simple as having a building. Up until that point we didn't have a building. He built Snowflake, and the teams started to build."
"What strikes me about George is not just his love for the sport but his love for other people to enjoy the sport," said Molly Hoeg, president of the Duluth Cross-Country Ski Club. "He created a gathering place for skiers not just to ski but to get encouragement from each other. That gathering place is important. It builds a sense of community."
Still at it
Hovland still skis, both cross-country and downhill. Over the years, Hovland has helped many younger skiers improve their skiing technique. Skiing the trails at Snowflake, Hovland often stops and offer tips to high school skiers who train there.
Hovland grew up near Chester Bowl and spent much of his youth competing in cross-country skiing, downhill skiing and ski jumping. He took his first jump on Big Chester, the ski jump that used to stand in the park, at about age 11, he said.
"I can remember vividly that first day when about five of us from our neighborhood decided to try it," he said. "There had been a jumping tournament at the park. Conditions were perfect. Fred Anderson went first. We almost carried him to the edge and pushed him over. He survived. We figured the rest of us could probably make it."
Hovland concedes that he was not a strong jumper, but he excelled in cross-country and downhill. He learned cross-country technique by watching veteran racers of the day like Erik Judeen and Peter Fosseide. He won the state cross-country and slalom titles in 1943.
Cross-country skiing began a growth spurt nationally in the 1970s, and in the early 1980s Hovland and others helped groom several young Duluth skiers who went on to excel in races like the American Birkebeiner. That success, in turn, spawned interest at the high school level and led to a string of several state cross-country champions from Duluth in ensuing years.
"He has had his hand on everything Nordic," Marshall's Johnson said. "Everything skiing has a touch of George Hovland... His hand has helped guide the evolution of Nordic skiing throughout this whole region."
Tickets to the Duluth Cross-Country Ski Club's Snow Ball Gala fundraiser on Sunday are $60. Find more information about the event, and a link to buy tickets, at duluthxc.com/snowball.