Celebrating 20 Years of Youth Programs at Blackhawk

By Christine Gessner 

The last time my father was in town, I brought him to Blackhawk to see the ski jumping improvements we’ve been working on over the past two years. My dad ski jumped at Blackhawk in the 1950s and was very impressed with how the club has managed to expand and improve over the years. That got me thinking about how much Blackhawk has changed since I became a member nearly 20 years ago.  

I reached out to our program leaders and asked them to share how their sports have evolved over the past 20 years. We hope that sharing the history of our youth programs will inspire you to make a year-end donation to support and continue the growth of our teams and lessons. 

Ski Jumping - Girly Gessner, Program Director (member for 17 years) 

When my kids started jumping in 2003, we had one jumping coach and 8 jumpers in the program. Kids came to practice dressed to jump and met by a broken-down quonset hut that held skis, a snow blower, a lawn mower, and tools, but had no room for people. In 2006, a group of ski jumpers raised money and built the jump chalet, which provided space to store equipment, change before practice, work with coaches, and run jumping tournaments.  

Once the shed was up, we started building our ski jumping inventory. This had a huge impact on the program since kids can start ski jumping on their Alpine skis, but as athletes progress in the sport, they need to switch over to jumping skis.  

Ski jumping equipment can only be purchased in Europe, so in order to build a program, we needed to have equipment on hand for new jumpers to use. We continue to search the United States for used jumping skis and boots to supplement our inventory.   

Just as we realized almost 15 years ago that for the program to grow and thrive, we needed an indoor space for coaches and jumpers to gather and for equipment to be stored, more recently, we realized our jumps and outruns needed attention. Over the last 2 years, we have cut down many trees and recontoured our hill to make it safer and more accessible for the groomer.  

We have replaced the plastic on our landing hills, allowing the kids to train year-round. We also built new 8- and 18-meter jumps. We are now the first club in the United States to use TexSnow on the tracks of our 18-meter jump. This will replace snow tracks in the winter, which will make jumping possible even when snow is scarce. We have also installed a new, safer tow rope for our athletes.  

After many hours of work, we are ready for our jumpers. This year, our Intro to Ski Jumping lessons are being offered at 3 different times during the week, and our traveling jumping team practices every Tuesday and Thursday. We have made massive improvements to our program over the past 20 years, and our program has grown. We now have five coaches and 35 kids in the program.  

We are hoping with so many improvements to the jump facility, our program will continue to grow and thrive. Next year, we plan to add an adult ski jumping program. Come check it out!  

Biathlon - Mark Torresani, Youth Biathlon Coach, U.S. Biathlon Assoc. Midwest Region Coordinator (member for 20 years) 

It’s taken a few years, some planning, a lot of work, and some patience, but Blackhawk Ski Club now has one of the Midwest’s leading biathlon venues and programs. From some very humble beginnings, the Blackhawk biathlon program has helped grow the sport in the Midwest and helped several current World Cup biathletes and a Paralympian gold medalist get some of their first biathlon experiences. 

The idea of a biathlon program and shooting area at Blackhawk started in the spring of 2002, with a proposal to the Board of Directors to allow the construction of an air rifle biathlon range and to purchase needed equipment with club funds. At the Board meeting, there was a good discussion about allowing guns at Blackhawk, even if they were only air rifles. With some deliberation and discussion, it was recognized that biathlon was an Olympic winter sport and fit well into the goals of the club, and biathlon as an allowed sport at the club was approved. 

During the summer of 2002, a 10-meter air rifle biathlon range was constructed between the 60-meter jump stairs and the piston bully barn. The 2002/2003 season also marked the first time any ski club in Wisconsin (possibly the Midwest) made snow for Nordic skiing. During the 2002/2003 season, the biathlon program was launched and was combined with the Middle School Nordic program.  

In 2007, Blackhawk Biathlon members started to work with WI Biathlon, located at the McMiller Shooting Range and Ski Trails within the Southern Kettle Moraine State Park. This partnership has continued, and together, these clubs promote biathlon in Wisconsin and provide safety training for new biathletes, as well as racing opportunities. 

Since 2010, the biathlon area has made improvements every year, and programs have grown in popularity and has become one of the few biathlon areas in the Midwest that can hold races consistently. The current biathlon venue was constructed and ready for practices and races during the 2011/12 season.  

The Biathlon Haus, built in 2016, went from an idea to a completed project in 6 months. The labor and funds for the Biathlon Haus were provided by biathletes, their families, friends of Blackhawk, and the greater Nordic community in Madison.  

Blackhawk biathlon programs have grown to include grade school, middle school, adults, adaptive biathletes, and programs with Military veterans. In January 2021, Blackhawk will host a Midwest Regional Biathlon Race, COVID regulations permitting. The biathlon venue and equipment would not have been possible without a lot of hard work by volunteers and donations to Blackhawk. Thanks to everyone who helped make this happen.

Ski & Snowboard School - Kelley Linnan, Program Director (member for 17 years)  

Our alpine ski program began as a small, one-day-a-week ski lesson program, with little instructor training and about 50 students. It has transformed into a Professional Ski Instructors of America (PSIA)-registered and trained, four-day-a-week ski and board school, with approximately 350 kids and more than 80 instructors.  

Today, our instructors wear uniforms and receive pre-season training, as well as in-season training from PSIA Level 3 Trainers. In addition to these changes, we have also developed a private lesson program that provides hundreds of private lessons a year.  

Mountain Biking - Kelley Linnan, Program Director (member for 17 years) 

Now in its ninth year, Blackhawk’s mountain biking program began with a handful of instructors and approximately 25 kids. Now, our program runs two days a week, with 100 kids registering for the program every summer. This past summer, we had around 30 volunteer instructors. 

We started with a few gnarly, hand-built single track trails that were way too advanced for beginner riders. Now, we have an extensive, professionally built system of trails perfectly suited for safe, fast, and fun riding by the kids. We are proud of the fact that the youth program is now a feeder program to a number of newly established middle and high school programs. 

Nordic Kids - Amy Grunewald Mattison, Program Director, President of the Board of Directors (member for 8 years) 

About 12 years ago, Chris and Sarah Lawn started Nordic Kids at Blackhawk. There were about 7 kids that first year, 3 of whom were their own! They grew the program by recruiting volunteers to teach lessons, keeping the emphasis on having fun on skis. As the program grew, Chris built a trailer to house a fleet of kids' gear and bought colorful bibs for kids' names.  

As Chris and Sarah's kids got older and more involved in the Nordic team, they handed over the program leadership to me. The past two winters have seen increased demand for Nordic Kids at our club and elsewhere, a great sign that families are connecting with the outdoors during winter! We now have two days of lessons every week, teaching about 60 kids each day.  

A favorite event, besides the hot chocolate after lessons, is our annual Cookie Race, where skiers ski a 1K, 3K or 5K loop and receive a homemade cookie medallion. We couldn't make it happen without our volunteer instructors and assistants, as well as parent help. Here's looking forward to all the kids who will learn to Nordic ski at Blackhawk in the next 20 years! 

Blackhawk Nordic Ski Team - Steve Swenson, Head Coach (member for 10 years) 

The past 10 years at Blackhawk have seen growth in our Nordic ski team and tremendous facility improvements at the ski club. Our team has grown consistently, and we have a combined total of 65 racers between our high school and middle school teams. We have introduced hundreds of youth to ski racing, and our teams are also among the most competitive in the state, with individual and team placings at our Wisconsin Nordic Ski League State Championships.   

None of this would be possible without the outstanding facilities that Blackhawk provides. 10 years ago, we skied on natural snow much of the time. Now, our improved  snowmaking infrastructure keeps us skiing when there is no natural snow to be had.  

The new West Chalet has also been a huge asset. Among the many benefits of the West Chalet is that we now have a clean, mosquito-free space for summer strength training and a home for our ski erg machine.  

Blackhawk is a very special place. There are only a handful of facilities in the entire country where youth programs for Nordic, Alpine, and ski jumping are thriving in the same location at the same time. We are very thankful for the support that Blackhawk Ski Club provides to keep these programs going strong! 

BART - Chad Oistad - Program Director, Blackhawk Board of Directors (member for 6 years)  

When we first joined BART, it was approximately 35 skiers and was essentially first come, first served. There was technically a waiting list, but it filled up every year. Since then, the program has grown to almost 70 competitors, with about 60 of them regularly practicing with the team.  

The remaining competitors are high school students who started out in BART, race and practice with their high school teams, and race in the WIJARA league with BART.  We now run a waiting list of approximately 30 to 50 racers over the course of a year, but the last few years we have had very little attrition, thanks to the excellent coaching and focus on the racers that the coaching has provided.  

Ski Patrol - Ken Matusek, Program Director, Blackhawk Board of Directors (member for 28 years) 

In the last 20 years, the ski patrol has grown from 18 patrollers to 31. We have upgraded equipment, including new toboggans, the latest splints, backboards, and a patrol room in the new chalet. Training is a constant, with the patrol keeping abreast of the latest in prehospital emergency care. The Blackhawk patrol received outstanding awards this year from the South Central region and the Central Division of the National Ski Patrol. Most noticeable to members in the past 20 years: The patrol switched its jackets from the traditional rust and blue to the current red and black. 

Your Support Is Appreciated  

Blackhawk Ski Club experienced astonishing growth over the last 20 years I’ve been a member. We started as a ski jumping club, but our early founders’ vision helped us expand our mission to teach young people life-long outdoor sports that now include alpine skiing, ski jumping, snowboarding, cross country skiing, biathlon, Nordic combined, and mountain biking.  

Our youth alpine lessons started with just 25 kids, and now we teach close to 600 kids in year-round programs. We have produced Junior National champions, sent kids to the Junior Worlds, and produced three Olympic Ski Jumpers.  

Our club has much to be proud of, and we hope that if you share our pride and our vision, you’ll consider making a donation to Blackhawk Ski Club to help us continue to improve our facilities and grow our youth programs. Thank you for your support. 

Click here to donate today!