Sixteen Questions with Rolf Wilson, World Record holder for longest gelande ski jump
with William Pennington
Did you know that Rolf Wilson lives in Seattle? Who is that, exactly, you may be wondering. Seattlites may be forgiven for not knowing one of the best Nordic long jump skiers in the country, simply because the sport is nowhere near Seattle. But with his tales of the "good old days" that would remind anyone of their favorite ski film (Hot Dog) or ski film parody (Ski Patrol), Rolf Wilson actually backs up the fun by breaking world records (4 times!), and being an 11 time North American Gelande Champion. If you don't believe me, let The Missoulian ski expert journalists explain it for you here.
I only know Rolf Wilson as a parent, and so that's where my ski jumping expertise ends. He's one of the most infectious, passionate people I've ever met, is a lover of the rugged Montana wilderness, hunts and fishes like a normal Montanian would, and grew up with Olympic Gold Medalist Tommy Moe. While there is only one hunting supply store in Seattle (Outdoor Emporium), but plenty of outdoor supply stores like REI, Rolf is slowly adapting to city life, and I feel lucky to have gotten to know him and be able to share a piece of his legend.
First of all, for those who are unfamiliar with ski jumping, what records do you hold?
I have a brother that's in the Guinness Book of World Records, for distance. And I've beaten those, but's I'm not in there. Officially, I have the world record for the furthest anybody has ever jumped on Alpine Ski's, at a Nordic jump. 375...374 feet...and I've broken the record 4 different times.
Do you do any tricks? What do you think of trick ski jumpers? Are there even trick ski jumpers?
We don't do tricks. Its all about aerodynamics, style and technique, with a little bit of personal influence...what I mean by that is education on how the air works. I learned how to fly in a particular pattern and a particular way, by a skydiver. We used a technique called "tracking", where if you are in a group and wanna get away from them fast, they raise their shoulders up by their ears, and they go from terminal velocity, 120 miles an hour or so, and they will literally go horizontal...for miles and miles. So we use that technique. What you're doing is creating a human foil. You can't do tricks at the speeds we're doing, man.
Have you ever met the famed ski documentarian Warren Miller?
I skied with his son a couple of times. I also trained his doctor in Bozeman for nany years. Never met him in person though. He once said, "If you don't do it this year, next year you will be one year older".
Are there any ski movies that captured the lifestyle of the ski culture?
Yeah Warren Miller captured it. And the Hollywood movie Hot Dog...that's been kind of the mentality. We tried to turn it a little bit but met some resistance. You're looking at the era of skiing where in the days of Gelande, we went to mom and pop resorts, and they wanted to have an event, where they could bring people up to the ski hill, sell ski passes, and sells burgers and hot dogs and beers. Now we're in this era of larger corporations coming in, and being able to purchase these mom and pop resorts, and turn them into big conglomerates. I don't wanna name any names...it's not bad, it's just different. When corporate companies come in, they clean a lot of stuff up, and it makes it really difficult for someone like us with no insurance to say "Hey, we wanna build a jump...we won't sue you" and they'll say "Oh you don't have insurance, so okay no" Some of the fun has been taken out of it.
I remember one year, I got to travel around and do 4 events. We got to go the the East Coast, from Colorado and Montana to the East Coast, then back to Utah...and we jumped four different hills in four different states. Then we came back to Wyoming and we did this jump called the Buffalo Jump...and it was a very small mom and pop, a non profithill, in Cody, Wyoming, and the city and state was funding it. We built this huge, huge jump. Over 200 feet. We didn't know, and no one had ever done it before. We had 14 professional jumpers there from all over the country, and we had never tried this before, and we did spot jumps and long jumps. We had the Olympic gold medalist, he was from Norway. He competed with us in Cody, Wyoming! On a man made jump that we had made! And we set the hill record at like 220 feet. And there was still another 100 feet to go! Our in run was like 400 yards, and we started where the ski lift dropped you off. That is gelande at its finest. That is the epitome of what we wanna do. They won't let us do that now because it has to be safe and controlled.
What do you do with your trophies?
I have...I used to have a special place in my house for them. One would go on the fireplace mantle, and the other would go..I had a bookshelf. They're really tall and really heavy so you have to have a good spot. I was pretty proud of those. I still have one at home, and its displayed in my garage...my toy room.
About retirement...do you do anything official? Maybe a letter to the National Ski Jumping Federation or something...?
Nothing official...but I think I'm done. I've got kids. Our governing body is the Alpine Ski Jumping Association. We used to use USSA, ski racing.
What made you want to do this in the first place? It seems like a suicide mission.
My older brother, we had watched him do it once, when we were minors. In college, he said "You have to do this, here's a pair of skis", and we went up...and the first ride I ever took was the scariest, most exhilarating, adrenaline filled moment of MY LIFE! I flew like a hundred and fifty feet. I don't think I stopped jumping the whole day.
How did you know how to land that first time?
I didn't. Well, we used to practice and do Nordic style jumping just skiing. We would find a roller and pull our Nord, and you can see how far you've went.
What do you do in the summer? Is there a giant waterslide that you practice on?
In the summer, we actually jump on the same hills but on plastic. So the in run has a ceramic dimpling, and a track. The track is about two and half feet wide, with 2 spaces for your skis, and we spray it with water. But it's just like skiing. It's perfect. Then we fly through the air, and we land on bristles of plastic, like the bottom of a broom, facing away from you, and they go all across the hill, and we spray the plastic with water, and we land on the out run on plastic and we ski out and we end up on grass, and we have to kneel down so our butt is touching the back of our binding, and we clutch our knees and come to a screeching halt. Same skis. The only difference is we actually grind the edges off of the skis. Cause you don't want metal touching plastic because it's very sticky. Yeah its wet, but on the track, since it's your edge, it almost stops you. It's really dangerous. So we grind the edges off them, so the metal doesn't touch any plastic, and we go out on this bar. Bar drops down. Scoot out on the bar, put our skis on the track, and wait for the green light. It's at the Olympic training facility, or Steamboat Springs, Colorado. It's an official way to train. Steamboat Springs has it year round. It's the same jump. And now, in the winter time, they're clearing the snow off the ceramic tracks and just using that, cause it's much easier to maintain, and plus it's really slick.
When you're in the air, can you feel exactly how far you're going? I mean, is there a mark you aim for, or know immediately if you've beaten the world record?
Most jumps on the out run, there's actually marks. So yellow, blue and red. Yellow is the first 50 - 75 meters. Red would be 75 meters to 100 meters, and Blue would be 100 meters on out, depending on how they set it up. They do mark it for you., but a lot of times when you come off the jump, you know how good or bad the jump is. It's all about speed on the in run, all about how you're taking off, like jumping off the end of the jump. Then the flight, wind, aerodynamics all take part in how good the jump is gonna be. You do have, for the most part, control over your flying, over your jumping. But a lot of times its just the speed, how you execute jumping off the end of the jump, and your flight path, and how you actually fly, really determines how far you go...but gravity always wins. No matter what. We actually will slow the speed down or increase our speeds if we wanna go shorter or go further.
Why would you wanna go slower and jump shorter?
Well there's something called a spot jump, where, depending on your ability, you can jump to that spot. Let's say the spot is at 80 meters. When you jump off, some guys have to slow their speed down to get to 80 meters. Some guys have to speed up to get to 80 meters. But here's the catch...if you go over the mark, you're out. Its a different type of strategy. It's like darts, some guys can do it from farther away, some guys can do it closer. But in this case it's all about speed. They don't do that in the Olympics, but they do do that at some events. It's really tricky. I'm not very good at it.
Is there an iconic record in ski jumping that is often regarded as unbreakable? Like Wilt Chamberlain's 100 points or Hank Aaron's home run record?
Sure. My mentor, Lloyd Thorsrud, he had the most consecutive wins out of anybody. He was sort of the man to beat. He had nine consecutive wins in a row, at one jump. Nine seasons in a row. I've had four in a row, but I've won that jump 12 times. But he won 11 consecutive jumps on this one other hill. Now I went 3 seasons, going to every event, where I didn't lose. For 11 straight events. That was my peak.
Why aren't these records in the public mind more?
It's such an odd sport. One of the sports that doesn't get a lot of recognition, because the guys that do it, really just wanna jump, and see how far they can go, and have fun. And it's never really been turned into a developed sport. We never really had the funding behind us. And we're a bunch of hooligans, to be honest with you. All we wanted to do is go skiing and hang out and have fun.
Your most prized jump? Is there one you think about most?
I've got one jump that will never ever, ever, leave my mind, and that was the World Record. It was a great, crazy insane jump, so much wind, so much speed, so much height...and I had to think about...ok, I'm gonna land way down there, I gotta come in at a certain way, and at a certain time, or I'm gonna splat. And it was really close to splatting.
How come the Olympics were never in the fold?
The Olympics has to be a sport that is sustainable for multiple venues and for many athletes. It's gotta go thru the X Games now. It's never gotten marketed and my career was at the end of it's hey day.
But I've seen the long jump at the Olympics forever...
Yeah, but it's different than Nordic.
-WP, September 2017
Photo courtesy of Atari